Let me see those pearly whites. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Banal retentive: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

In his new, Booker-longlisted novel, Joshua Ferris retains his title as the poet of the modern workplace, but his invented religion, Ulmism, proves to be a pretty dry excuse for a quest.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour 
Joshua Ferris
Viking, 352pp, £16.99

Meet Paul O’Rourke. Paul is a wealthy, misanthropic, middle-aged dentist with a sparkling private practice on Park Avenue in New York City. He is both an atheist and a Luddite and, like many atheists and Luddites, he is utterly obsessed with religion and technology. He derives genuine, if all too infrequent, satisfaction from drilling and filling rotten cavities but comes unstuck on the question of flossing. “What’s the point?” he asks. “In the end, the heart stops, the cells die, the neurons go dark . . . and the teeth float away with the tide.”

It is Paul’s staff who suffer most from this existential griping. “I am haunted,” he whines in the ear of the head hygienist, Betsy Conroy, a devout Christian. “You think I alienate myself from society? Of course I alienate myself from society. It’s the only way I know of not being constantly reminded of all the ways I’m alienated from society.”

Paul’s distaste for other people seems to stem, ironically, from a deep and nagging yearning to belong. He has no family to speak of (father, suicide; mother, mad) and no religious tradition to fall back on – unless a ritualistic entanglement with the Boston Red Sox counts. He would like to make peace with the world, but cannot, provoking outbursts from him on everything from hand lotion to the ubiquity of the emoticon “:)”.

“My relationship with the internet was like the one I had with the :),” he explains. “I hated the :) and hated to be the object of other people’s :), their :-) and their :>. I hated :-)) the most because it reminded me of my double chin . . . I swore never to use the emoticon ever . . . until one day, offhandedly and without much thought, I used my first :) and, shortly thereafter, in spite of my initial resistance, :) became a regular staple of my daily correspondence.”

Each of Paul’s former girlfriends is selected initially for her mouth – a window not to the soul, but to the gory space in which it fails to materialise – and also for the “close-knit and conservative families” they bring with them. Take the Plotzes – the large, happy, Jewish family that produced Connie Plotz, who remains an employee at O’Rourke Dental despite the couple’s acrimonious break-up. (“I don’t get pussy whipped,” he explains in one of a handful of jokes that misfire spectacularly, “I get cunt gripped.”) Likewise the Santacroces, “a picture-perfect family of Catholics whose tidy garage, sturdy oak trees, and family portraits through the ages would absolve all the sins and correct all the shortcomings of my childhood”. In each case Paul comes on too strong and ruins his chances. “I would affirm God and convert to Catholicism and condemn abortion and drink Martinis,” he asserts, failing to remember that Sam Santa­croce is more than just a glossy lower lip and gets a say in their relationship, too.

In Ferris’s 2007 debut, Then We Came to the End, it is the sense of unity fostered by the grinding tedium of office life that makes office life bearable. That novel is narrated in the first-person plural by the staff at a failing Chicago-based advertising firm, a communal “we” that stands in stark contrast to O’Rourke’s lacerating “I”: “ ‘We love you, Paul.’ It was really that ‘we’ I wanted more than anything else,” he says. “For all my proud assertions of self, I really only wanted to be smothered in the embrace of an inclusive and coercive singular ‘we’.”

So it seems a little uncanny, even miraculous, when Connie discovers a website and Twitter account spewing pseudo-religious propaganda in Paul’s name. Her discovery signals the beginning of the plotty part of the novel. Paul is told he is an “Ulm”: the member of an ancient tribe formed by the Amalekites – a people mentioned in Genesis and 1 Chronicles, most of whom were slain at God’s command by the Israelites – in the process of forging an irredentist pact in the desert wastes of southern Israel. What makes them unique is their affirmation of faith: to become an Ulm one must doubt the existence of God.

Ulmism is the Hitchensian Church of Atheism given form and substance, and a pretty dry excuse for a quest. Ultimately it is Paul’s voice – crude, indignant, irate – that is most memorable. The desire for “connectivity” is an honest cry from a lonely professional, one that could be explored without the diversion to ersatz religion. His reflections on the day-to-day – “Pizza Fridays were no small thing”; afternoon mochaccinos are “a little joy” – ensure Ferris retains his title as the poet of the modern workplace, while the story of the Ulms strays on to dodgy ground. “Say what you will about the tragedies of the Jews,” declares the group’s leader, Grant Arthur, in the process of mythologising his own, more extreme version of Paul’s rejection by the Plotzes, “at least they have been documented.”

It is no surprise To Rise Again . . . has made the Man Booker longlist, now that Americans are being welcomed into that hitherto British-imperial sect. It signals the late acknowledgement of American preoccupations in our literature: heritage, self-determination, Israel – but if it wins I’ll eat my hat. And I could. I have a great dentist.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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