June 17, 2014
Guest: Joshua Ferris
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Staring into the mouths of his patients all day, the dentist in Joshua Ferris's new novel becomes obsessed with decay and death. He wishes he had religious faith and could believe in something larger than himself. But to him, church is just a dark, bus station of the soul.
Something else this dentist doesn't have is his own website. He doesn't want one. But someone impersonating him starts a site, as well as a Twitter account which he uses to proselytize for a religion that sounds ancient but that no one has ever heard of. Joshua Ferris's new novel "To Rise Again At A Decent Hour" is his third book. His first novel, "And Then We Came To The End," was a satire set in the office of an advertising agency during the end of the dot-com boom and the beginning of the bust. In a review of the new novel, Lauren Groff wrote in The New York Times book review, Ferris is as brave and adept as any writer out there.
Joshua Ferris, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a reading from the very opening of your novel.
JOSHUA FERRIS: (Reading) The mouth is a weird place, not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between; dark, wet, admitting access to an interior most people would rather not contemplate; where cancer starts; where the heart is broken; where the soul might just fail to turn up. I encouraged my patients to floss. It was hard to do some days. They should've flossed. Flossing prevents periodontal disease and can extend life up to seven years. It's also time-consuming and a general pain in the ass. That's not the dentist talking. That's the guy who comes home, four or five drinks in him. What a great evening, ha ha's all around, and the minute he takes up the floss, says to himself, what's the point? In the end, the heart stops, the cells die, the neurons go dark, bacteria consumes the pancreas, flies lay their eggs, beetles chew through tendons and ligaments, the skin turns to cottage cheese, the bones dissolve and the teeth float away with the tide. But then someone who never flossed a day in his life would come in, the picture of inconceivable self-neglect and unnecessary pain - rotted teeth, swollen gums, a live wire of infection running from enamel to nerve. And what I called hope, what I called courage, above all, what I called defiance again rose up in me. And I would go around the next day or two saying to all my patients, you must floss, please floss, flossing makes all the difference. A dentist is only half the doctor he claims to be. That he's also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself. The ailing bits, he tries to turn healthy again. The dead bits he just tries to make presentable. He bores a hole, clears the rot, fills the pit and seals the hatch. He yanks the teeth, pours the mold, fits the fix and paints to match. Open cavities are the eye-stones of skulls and loan molars stand erect as tombstones.
GROSS: Oh, thank you for reading that. That's Joshua Ferris reading from the opening of his new novel, "To Rise Again At A Decent Hour." Why did you choose dentistry as the opportunity to reflect on the inevitability of the body's decay and ultimate death?
FERRIS: Well, I guess it started when I was probably 22, 23, and I went to the dentist. And I said, what is going on with my mouth? I mean, I had a gum problem that would seem to be the result of Typhus or, you know, the prick of a needle on a beach somewhere. And the woman just looked up at me and said - the dental hygienist, she said, son, do you floss?
FERRIS: And I said, no, of course not, that's a ridiculous question, flossing is no fun. And she said, floss. And sure enough, that took care of my problems forevermore. And I thought it was absolutely fascinating that something so simple and sort of, you know, unknown. I mean, I knew you should floss, but I didn't know that it could actually help my gums. And from that moment forward, I flossed and I flossed every day, and something so simple was so relieving of pain. I was kind of fascinated by dentists from that point forward.
GROSS: But you also have the dentist being the observer of the body's decay because he's looking at decaying teeth and bone...
GROSS: ...And wounds in the mouth and sores, and so, like, he's just the observer of the deterioration of the body.
FERRIS: Yeah, well, you know, when we going into the dentist, basically we go in, sit in the chair, try to bear up and then flee, you know, as quickly as he can. Hereâs a guy - I'm thinking of a guy who's got to be there every day - eight, ten hours a day - who has no relief from that decay, who has no relief from the worst mouth problems that people suffer from. And he's already kind of dour. You know, he's already kind of a pessimist about the world, and when he has to spend all of that time inside these wrecks of mouths, it just sort of makes things worse. So it works him down and works him down to the point where at the beginning of the book when we first meet him, he's pretty much in constant despair
GROSS: And at the beginning of the book, he pretty much finds his patients' pain and his patients' mouth problems to be oddly reassuring. He says, like, now you know what he knows, that luck runs out and death is inevitable. And he talks about, you know, the enjoyment of watching the entitlement end, the immunities of great privilege have expired. You're no different from the next guy. You're mortal, and it's ugly.
FERRIS: Yeah, fun thoughts.
GROSS: I don't think my dentist is like this at all, by the way. (Laughing) I have a great dentist. I really don't think he takes pleasure in my pain.
FERRIS: Well, you know, it's wonderful when you can go into the dentist and feel that, you know, things are pretty good. The dentist tends to remind you of pain and the possibility of decay and disease, and I think that's part of the reason that dentists are sort of chronically misunderstood. And nobody wants to go see a dentist. It reminds you of some of the things that, you know, you would prefer to go without. I don't know that he's celebrating peopleâs awareness, but because he's so painfully aware of the daily problems that he confronts, he might take a little bit of comfort, as you say, in the recognition by other people who live blithely, that they, too, are mortal and have these concerns.
GROSS: The dentist in your novel, the main character in your novel, wants something greater than his work and golf and playing banjo on the side. He says, I would've liked to believe in God. By believing in God, I could succumb to ease and comfort and reassurance. Why can't he believe?
FERRIS: I took as the basic premise that a kind of heaven on Earth is a religious identity. The ability to believe comes with the reassurance of immortality, of forgiveness and also I think a community of like-minded believers. This guy is so reasonable in a kind of, you know - in the kind of neo-atheism way, in the kind of Dawkins-Hitchens model; if you think clearly about the world, there is no possible way you could allow for a being greater than the human being. Any divinity whatsoever is off the table.
So I started with that basic premise and wanted to see where he lacks because of that belief. Does that highly reasoned and kind of cutthroat authenticity, the commitment to atheism, what does it do to a person in his life? Does it make him cramped at all? Where does he find community? These were the questions that I began the novel with.
GROSS: He really would like to believe - and he says about his chief dental hygienist, Betsy Convoy, who's a widow - he says about her, I always considered her alone, but she was never alone. She was with the tripartite company of the father, the son and the Holy Ghost. He envies people who have faith.
FERRIS: Yeah absolutely. You know, I mean...
GROSS: He thinks they're wrong, but he envies them.
FERRIS: Yeah, you know, if he could believe, he would believe. You know, he's just too committed to these - to the rational creed of atheism. What he sees all around him, however, are people who are believing, who do have those reassurances and comforts that are discussed early in the book and that have a community, have a built-in community of people who not only believe like them but also support and comfort them through the night. He doesn't have that and he doesn't have that mostly because he's committed to this idea, to this intellectual principle. And it alienates him from the mass of humanity.
GROSS: Your main character the dentist, grew up Protestant left his faith. His ex-girlfriend is Jewish and he and envies Jewish people because of secular Judaism. The fact that you can basically be an atheist, but still be a Jew, and still derive cultural identity, and a sense of belonging to a tribe. Did you experience that yourself?
FERRIS: When I was growing up my mom took us to church in a kind of fitful way. She meant to go every week but of course we missed some weeks because we were just busy or you know I had siblings that were crazy and we couldn't get into the car fast enough so we would skip church. We went to a couple of different Protestant denominations. So I actually joked to her later on in life that we had multiple denomination syndrome. We didn't know where we belonged you know. One week we were Catholic, the next we were Lutherans. So I kind of share with the main character a biography that just is a little adrift religion wise. When I was in college, I would look in on people who came from much stronger traditions and they were carrying their traditions through college. They were committed to them, they were hanging on because it gave them you know some tether to the communities that they had left the homes that they had left. And I really envied it, I saw a lot of strength there, I saw a lot of beauty there. I saw the attachment to traditions and religions that I didn't have, and I envied them I think in the same way my main character does.
GROSS: And specifically, did you ever envy Jewish people who have the ability to not believe but still be a part - still identify as Jewish and be considered a part of the tribe.
FERRIS: Yeah, sure. I mean when I went to the University of Iowa, I roomed with a guy who was from the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. And he was Jewish and he and I became best friends, and he was you know expressing a lot of doubt with respect to God in general you know - the divinity, the existence of the divine being, but at the same time he was going to the Hillel and he was participating in high holidays and I went to my first Passover that year. So he was still very much amongst people who understood him and who he understood and he got to participate in the traditions. And it didn't really matter what he believed. It may have mattered to him but as I saw it from the outside in he was very much a part of this community and that community had just never been an option for me. And so I found it to sort of partake of the best of both worlds.
GROSS: If you're just joining us my guess is Joshua Ferris. His new novel is called "To Rise Again At A Decent Hour." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joshua Ferris. And his new novel, "To Rise Again At a Decent Hour," is about a dentist who sees himself as facing his patient's mortality all the time as he deals with their, you know, decaying teeth and rotting gums. And at the same time, he wants to have faith in God. But he can't, and he doesn't. So the main character in your novel, the dentist, who looks into rotting mouths all day and sees his job as part mortician because he's dealing with so much decaying and already dead tissue - do you think, in part, he craves religion because he sees the - because he looks mortality literally in the face every day?
FERRIS: I certainly think that's one of the things. I mean, he's making things bleed constantly. He can't quite get out of that mode. And so that's a kind of permanent reminder of not only how we end up and the misery and pain that may overtake us at the end of life, but I think it makes him question people's behavior. And why it is that we've been placed on earth? Have we been put here to make meaning or should we just sort of blithely and obliviously move through our days without concern for the larger questions? And so I think these things are entering in his restless curiosity for how we should conduct life is coinciding with his constant reminder that we're mortal - that the time we have on earth is limited.
GROSS: Joshua, in your novel, somebody eventually steals the online identity of this dentist. The dentist doesn't really have an online identity. He doesn't do social media. He doesn't have a Facebook page. But suddenly, there's a Twitter account in his name. There's a Facebook account in his name. And the person who has taken the account in the dentist's name starts posting these biblical sounding passages that really aren't from the Bible at all. And I'm going to ask you to read a couple of short excerpts from these passages that sound biblical but are not.
FERRIS: If thou makest of me a God and worship me and send for the psaltery and the tebrit (ph) to prophecy of my intentions and make war, then ye shall be consumed.
GROSS: Let's stop right there.
JOSHUA FERRIS: Yeah.
GROSS: ...Before you read the next one.
GROSS: So he's basically saying, hey, don't do this in my name - don't make war in my name.
FERRIS: The god of that passage, yeah.
GROSS: The god of that passage, yes.
FERRIS: Yeah he's saying, you know, look, all is well and good. Believe in me. That's fine. But certainly don't conduct war in my name. And if you don't, then I will guarantee you safe passage through the world. This is a very - obviously a very different approach, I think, to, you know, the gods of many religions that basically say I am the one God and the only God.
GROSS: OK. Read another excerpt.
FERRIS: And Sofec (ph) gathered us anew, and we sojourned with him in the land of Israel. And we had no city to give us name, neither had we king to appoint us captains, to make of us instruments of war. Neither had we lost a follow, save one. Beyond - make thine heart hallowed by doubt. For God, if God, only God may know. And we followed Sofec (ph) and were not consumed.
GROSS: OK. So this is very biblical sounding - you know, very fake biblical sounding. There seems to be a God, but you are hollowed by doubt. To believe in this God, you must also believe in doubt. That kind of doesn't make sense.
FERRIS: It's a big contradiction, yeah.
GROSS: And I should say here that we don't know - at this point in your novel - we don't know who is writing this.
GROSS: And we don't know - initially they think, like, is this part of the Bible that I don't remember? And they realize, no, definitely not part of Bible. They don't know what this is about. But getting back to the question of the main thing you have to have is doubt about God - what sense does that make?
FERRIS: Yeah. Someone has made a website in his name for his dental practice. And that's freaky to him. He doesn't quite understand, and it's very upsetting. When they start posting these pseudo-biblical passages, he assumes they're from the Bible. And it gets him even more upset because now they're not only impersonated him, but also making him seem like a believer which he's not.
He asks his dental hygienist, Mrs. Convoy, who's the Roman Catholic where's this from? And she says, you know, this doesn't sound like the Bible. This doesn't sound like - at least the New Testament. So at this point, he's in unknown territory. As it turns out, this is a very specific god to a very specific religion that he's about to learn a whole lot more about.
And that religion specifically asks his followers to believe in a God who's only dictate is that they doubt him. Well, that's a tough one, you know? It's full of contradictions, and it doesn't make any logical sense. But a little later in the book, one of the impersonator - maybe the only impersonator - asks him how logical other gods are. And he points out that the Buddhist who must discover Nirvana has to do that by realizing a self that does not exist but the self must discover its own nonexistence.
Jewish belief dictates that you believe that God made man in his image but man is full of evil. Christianity dictates that you believe in God who is also a man of flesh and blood. So there are a lot of illogical definitions that get ascribed to God. And I was just sort of following along those lines, you know? God himself does not to resolve - be resolved of contradictions. In fact, it is one of God's greatest qualities that he is riddled with contradictions.
So I suppose that this follows along those lines. You know, how can you believe in a god who demands that you doubt him? Well, this is, ironically, for a religion founded on doubt, the real question of faith.
GROSS: Joshua Ferris will be back in the second half of the show. His new novel is called "To Rise Again At A Decent Hour." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with writer Joshua Ferris. His first novel, "Then We Came To The End," was set at an advertising agency at the start of the dot com bust. His new novel, "To Rise Again At A Decent Hour," is about a dentist whose thoughts turn to mortality while staring at the decaying teeth and rotting gums of his patients. He wants to have religious faith and believe in something larger than himself, but he's too full of doubt. He's puzzled and angry when he discovers that someone online has stolen his identity to start a website and Twitter account proselytizing for an ancient sounding religion that no one has ever heard of.
This dentist basically lives in fear of life in some ways. Like he doesn't want children because here's what he says, he says (reading) you might fear for the kids like every time he leaves your sight. I didn't want to live in perpetual fear. People don't recover from the death of a child. I never seriously considered killing myself, but once you have a kid, you take that option off the table. And options are important. So that's the reason he tells himself he doesn't want children. And earlier in his life, he and his girlfriend, who subsequently left him, he and his girlfriend got a dog as a prelude to maybe having a child. And as he's playing with the puppy, all he can think about is how the puppy's going to age, and then the puppies going to become a dog and die. And so, I guess I'm interested in hearing you think about somebody who lives in fear of life because life ends in death.
FERRIS: Well, at that point he's not really living. I think you see him in pain and despair throughout a lot of the book. And I think that takes, sometimes it takes the form of complaint and sometimes it takes the form of envy of other people who seem to have figured out the art of living in much more satisfying ways than he has. But he, you know, he is stuck in this, in part because he's a dentist. As you point out, he's always looking in this, into the mouths of those who have neglected themselves and seeing the rot and decay that define his life. But, you know, so he's stuck in this way of living that is so death dominated, he cannot find happiness. So when happiness is presented to him in the form of a puppy, in the form of a new lover, in the form of a new way of thinking about life, he forecloses it because it has to end. This is no way to conduct yourself. And it leads him into many cul-de-sacs of despair. And that's really the book's business, to get him out. To find out how he might not only live without fear, but in some satisfying way for himself, embrace something larger than his own limited personality.
GROSS: Do you suffer, or have you ever suffered from a disease like this? Where it's hard to start things because you know they're going to end and the ending is going to be so sad. So to spare yourself that sad ending, you just don't even begin?
FERRIS: It sounds basically like starting every new book.
FERRIS: It's just going to end in critical death. (Laughing) I don't really believe that. But I tell you what, it's a big hurdle to get over in those early months of starting a book, where you think oh, this again, my own limitations, my tics and tendencies, and it's only going to end up in something that is only partially satisfying to my sort of platonic ideal. So I think with respect to that for sure, you know. And it certainly crosses my mind, as a person, as a father, as a friend and as a son and a brother, that death hovers over so much of what we do, what we have to accomplish in the short hours that we have here on earth. And it can affect me, for sure. I mean, I can feel too limited by it and too scared of it and sad about it. And I think that that can, if I am not careful, qualify the living hours that are important to make the most of. And I have to really guard against it because otherwise those living hours are squandered, or at least qualified by something that I have no control over and that makes no sense to fret over.
GROSS: You mentioned you're a father.
FERRIS: I am.
GROSS: OK. Unlike the character in your book, who's afraid to become a father.
FERRIS: Yeah, I mean, that kind of fear would be useless to the conduct of my life. You know, I'm too interested in experience and in figuring out how to live. I think that this particular person. The dentist is, he's too constricted by his own thoughts. He's too much in his own head. And as I say, part of the business of the book was to get him out and into the world, much as a dentist, I think, who's sequestered in an office can't from 9 to 5. You know, I'm a writer, so I'm much more interested in making sure that I maximize my experience and find out what I think about it sort of retrospectively. You know, life is too interesting for me to spend too much time worrying about the mistakes I might be making.
GROSS: When your main character, the dentist, is nine years old, his father dies. His father actually commits suicide. And the boy's told that if he loves Jesus, that Jesus will eventually give him back his father in a sweet place called heaven, and that he'll be carried through this crisis. Did you have a crisis like that in your life as a boy?
FERRIS: I had a much more minor crisis. I watched a movie that was just terrifying around the age of 9 and I was certain that I was going to be kidnapped that night as I lay in bed. I was very distraught. And I went to my mother and I said here's what I've done, I've watched a movie you would not approve of, which itself is like admitting to God something terrible. And she said - she didn't, you know, punish me. She didn't want to see me in pain. She said pray to God. Pray to Jesus. And I did and by God it worked. I mean, it just totally took care of that. I thought well, if I pray to Jesus and Jesus is here, then I'm going to be protected and I can't get kidnapped. I had no worries for a long time after that because that's what I did. But, you know, after a certain point in time I started thinking, I imagine that there's been some kidnapping in which believers have gone away. (Laughing) You know, they've been the target. So I started to put two and two together and the praying no longer comforted me quite as much.
GROSS: I'm just curious as a father who is not a believer, I don't know how old your child or children are, but if one of them sees a movie and or hears something on TV that really terrifies them, what do you tell them? You can't tell them to pray to Jesus like you were told.
FERRIS: Yeah, let me answer this because I love the question. I have something that just happened yesterday. But I will say that I'm not sure that I'm entirely comfortable with being described as a nonbeliever. Only because there's this little shadow of a doubt that I keep open. I have a character in the book described herself as a non-practicing atheist. And I think that's how I would describe myself. You know, when push comes to shove and I'm forced to think reasonably, I affirm again and again that there is no God. But as a rule, as I sort of go through life, I find that that can lead to a dogma that is no more welcoming to my way of thinking than the dogma of believers. So I tend to want to keep the door open an inch, which I think sounds to many people maybe like cheating. But to me it's simply a matter of keeping not my options open, but my mind wide, as wide as possible and my heart open to new possibilities. With respect to my son, he - we just went to see "How To Train Your Dragon 2" on Sunday. And he gets very scared. Any sense of peril and he says I want to turn it off, I want to turn it off, even though it's being broadcast on the screen. What I've taken to telling him is to remember the seat he's sitting in, to remember that he's there on a fluffy seat with a hardback that he can touch his feet to the ground and feel right here in the world and not to worry. And I think what it does, hopefully, is remind him that he's present and that the sum of the peril that he's seeing on screen is happening there and not to him himself. I don't exactly know how I would counsel him were he to come face-to-face with actual endangerment. But I think remembering that you're present, remembering the present moment, is about as best as we can do.
GROSS: Why take him to a movie that you're pretty sure is going to scare him?
FERRIS: Well I, we covered it before. And he saw the first one and he wasn't that scared. I had read that this one had more peril or endangerment than the previous one. So we worked through it, you know, I said are you sure you want to go see it? And he said yeah. And I said well, so papa will be here, you can climb into my lap. You know, he's five. He's of the age, I think, where he can handle it and we worked through it. And, you know, frankly, I've been on tour for the last month and I felt guilty. So I thought well, we'll go and have some M&M's, and hopefully he'll forgive me for being away for so long.
GROSS: My guest is Joshua Ferris. His new novel is called "To Rise Again At A Decent Hour." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joshua Ferris, and his new novel is called, "To Rise Again At A Decent Hour." You wrote an article about how - and this gets away from your book, but it's kind of connected to it. You wrote an article about how you used to kind of be a foodie. And then you developed a gluten allergy. And the community and the pleasure that you'd focused on around food was no longer available to you in the same way. Can you talk about what you lost when you couldn't eat gluten anymore?
FERRIS: Well, Terry, I don't want to be too dramatic about it, but I lost everything.
GROSS: OK. (Laughing).
FERRIS: I lost it all. You know, I love eating. And eating, for a long time, was the way in which I would start the weekend, you know? I mean, I ate pretty consistently throughout the day. But then when Friday night came along, I went out with friends. I went out with my wife. I had a good time, and I ate what I wanted to eat. I can't do that anymore. And I look in at people - I see people eating pizza on the street. I see them drinking beer in bars. And I am deeply alienated from them - not because, you know, they're doing anything I wouldn't be doing. Before I got this gluten allergy, I believed that such a thing, allergy to gluten, was absurd. Well, I think that, you know - in my more mystical moments I think that I have this now because I was so insensitive to those allergies. I can't eat the things that I used to eat and so, by virtue of that, feel pretty excluded from how I used to be - from who - from the very person I used to be. It may seem - as I say, it may seem dramatic. But so much of my recreation, and so much of my community, so much of my shared conversation with friends revolved around this thing. It wasn't just sustenance - it was ritual. It wasn't just an event - it was the true meaning of breaking bread. Now that I can't do that, I'm really trying to figure out where I should spend my recreational time and what it means for me to engage on some larger scale. I mean, of course it's the food that I miss the most. But it's also these tangential things that come with eating food, that come with participating in the eating of - the splitting of a pizza pie or the drinking of a beer with friends, that I no longer can do. And it compromises me. And I feel kind of at a loss.
GROSS: So has this increased your feeling of vulnerability?
FERRIS: Oh, sure. I mean, yeah, in amazing ways. I mean, I was sick for a long time. It took me about 10 years to really figure out what was wrong with me. And during those 10 years, I thought it was this, I thought it was that. I thought it was kind of mechanical, you know? I never once thought, despite its intuition, that it was something I was putting into my body. So once it came to my attention and I took it seriously and quit it, you know, it resolved itself fairly quickly. However, the very fact that it can come back with a little bit of au poivre sauce or...I ate - prior to that, I ate, maybe three months ago, a square of chocolate with some barley emulsifier. And that did it. So it is a vulnerability because, you know, at any moment in time, if I'm not incredibly vigilant, I could get very, very ill for three or four days. And that makes you aware of, what you normally think of as providing sustenance and strength, can come and bite you in the butt. And man, it really does take it out of me. So I do walk around a little bit more vulnerable than before.
GROSS: How do you prevent yourself from having a toxic envy of people who could do things that you can't, like drink beer, and eat bread and have pizza?
FERRIS: Yeah. I think the very easy answer to arrive at, but not necessarily to put into practice, is to recognize, at every moment, the incredible limitations that I have in general and to reconcile my - is to reconcile myself to those limitations and also to reconcile myself to how little control I have over them. Once I do that, I see the incredible broadness of my simple being. I can leave off concern for what I'm not capturing, what I'm not experiencing, and take solace, but also great delight, in what I do have, in the simple pleasures that I'm still allowed, in the delight in being human, in the interactions that are most meaningful to me. At that point in time, I'm not a kind of deprived being. I am a person who is acting from within with great power, with the power of the self to do what he can do, to realize his moments in time. It kind of goes back to what I would say to my son when he gets scared. Remember what you have. You have a soft seat, and a firm back and solid floor to put your feet on. If I can remember all of that for myself, then the things that I am excluded from no longer bother me. I think that what I do, though, is shift from the centered kind of person - the centered being that looks out into the world and gets delight from what he can get delight from, to the other person who sort of sees him from the outside-in, who sees all of the ways that I'm being, you know, denied or deprived and envies, you know, what I envy. If I - I do this a lot. I shift from one perspective to the next. This is sort of an occupational hazard. If I can remember to stay here in the center, and sort of in the belly, so to speak, then I'll be fine.
GROSS: An occupational hazard as a writer?
FERRIS: Yeah. You know, I mean, this is - basically, fiction is all about - writing fiction is all about perspective, seeing things differently from different points of view. And so if I - once I shift over to the guy that's looking in at me, as a kind of third-person actor in the world - if I focus too much on those limitations, I can get bogged down in all that's been deprived of me. But if I think of myself as a first-person actor, if I understand those limitations and work around them, or work with them and remember what I do - what I am in control of, you know, I maximize my experience on earth. And that's the only thing, as a person - not as a writer, but as a person - that I'm truly interested in.
GROSS: Joshua Ferris, thank you so much for talking with us.
FERRIS: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Joshua Ferris is the author of the new novel, "To Rise Again At A Decent Hour." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new album by Parquet Courts, a band that's been compared to the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, has a review of the new third album by Parquet Courts, a band from Brooklyn by way of Texas. The quartet has drawn comparisons to New York rock and punk bands as various The Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, and Sonic Youth. But rock critic, Ken Tucker, says this album, called "Sunbathing Animal" proves Parquet Courts is an original.
(SOUNDBITE OF PARQUET COURTS SONG, "DUCKING & DODGING")
PARQUET COURTS: (Singing) You've been ducking & dodging, but you can't come home no more. You've been ducking & dodging, but you can't come home no more. That key that you've got won't fit this lock no more. That key that you've got won't fit this lock no more. You've been ducking & dodging, but you can't come home no more.
KEN TUCKER: The rapidly strummed electric guitars, the slamming drums, the jittery base, the shouted vocals - yes, Parquet Courts is doing its best to remind you why you like punk rock in the first place. While the band is not opposed to stretching out a groove - one song here cracks the seven minute mark - the essential strategy is to state the verse, let the verse do the work of a chorus and let you try to figure out the words.
(SOUNDBITE OF PARQUET COURTS SONG, "ALWAYS BACK IN TOWN")
PARQUET COURTS: (Singing) Always back in town. Always at your door. Always marking days off the calendar. Always my last night. Always saying goodbye. Always hear you roar. Always see your strides. Always passing through. Always hanging my hat. Always on my mind. Always feed my cat. And I'm always packing my bags. I'm always back in town, according to you. Always back in town.
TUCKER: That's "Always Back In Town" - essentially a list of habits and behaviors sung by bandleader Andrew Savage in his sweet and sour croon. The composition operates as a repetitive drone that finds a healthy momentum and maintains it, the musical equivalent of a fighter doing jump rope training. Springy and agile, this is well-muscled music as performed by guys who like to moan and complain a lot.
(SOUNDBITE OF PARQUET COURTS SONG, "DEAR RAMONA")
PARQUET COURTS: (Singing) An air of self delusion that no two arms could ever contain - this lady is a hypnosis poet. And when she speaks, her words weep like rain. She tiptoes through the side streets in the morning and wears dark sunshades at night. However she might be spending her time, I don't know. You'd have to ask her neighbors. Well, she ain't ever going to open up, no. No, she ain't ever going to open up. No, not to no one.
TUCKER: Parquet Courts creates songs that dare you to be irritated by them. They stick with a riff like that one - a song called "Dear Ramona" - and shuffle into it lines such as whoever she might be going to bed with, you can read about that in her moleskin. There's an undercurrent of sarcasm there. And I would be surprised if the Parquet Courts boys don't own a few moleskin notebooks themselves. But making clever snark develop into something more emotional, more revelatory - that's the challenge the band sets for itself.
(SOUNDBITE OF PARQUET COURTS SONG, "SUNBATHING ANIMAL")
PARQUET COURTS: (Singing) One creature I return to, one habit I neglect. I cannot slow the pace at which I yearn. Frank and unabashed, and I become a frozen servant. Smiling, asking nothing in return. Fang-tooth woman foaming at the mouth as she addressed me. Not with moving lips, but with the rabid wild arresting. Words not yet intended to identify emotion scrawling bold and oblique in my head. I've hung out at your service jobs. I've watched you wait and be ignored. Bled into the clatter as they sipped at what you poured. I cling to your perimeter as you float in their margins. Oblivious to being stung, their satellite becomes my sun. I've flown into that trap before when things have gotten dark. In the depths of stranger's glances lays the more ferocious spark.
TUCKER: On that, "Sunbathing Animals" title song, Parquet Courts plunges headlong into its invigorating take on post punk rock music. When I listen closely, I heard over the course of the whole album, a certain snippy attitude toward women cropping up a tad too frequently - as in that song's line about fang-toothed woman foaming at the mouth as she addressed me. The band is also inordinately fond of what I would call the Bob Dylan surrealism adjective, as when, on another tune, the singer says, let me slip into my insomniac shoes.
(SOUNDBITE OF PARQUET COURTS SONG, "INTO THE GARDEN")
PARQUET COURTS: (Singing) Time waits over, behind your shoulder. And the onset of your wandering years until you're not the same old fool you once took yourself for. Let me slip into my insomniac shoes. Step out the door into the garden of my unpaid dues.
TUCKER: These wise guys give themselves as much of a hard time as they give everyone else. And it's that self-awareness that redeems this exhilarating music. Parquet Courts is great at making anyone's misery sound surmountable, including its own.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed "Sunbathing Animal" from the group Parquet Courts. I'm Terry Gross.
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