To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris, Viking, RRP£16.99/Little, Brown, RRP$26, 352 pages
You have to say this for Joshua Ferris as a comic novelist: he’s not afraid to tackle the big stuff. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a book about midlife crisis, the experience of religious conversion, the struggle to find meaning in everyday life, the yearning for human connection, the awful lure of suicide and the appalling terror of death. It’s a hoot. Also, it has some important, timely and extremely well-researched things to say about dentistry. Flossing, apparently, makes all the difference.
Ferris’s narrator, Paul O’Rourke, is a New York dentist with a flourishing practice on Park Avenue. He works hard, makes “tons and tons of money”, and is a complete mess emotionally. Perhaps because of his trade – “a dentist is only half the doctor he claims to be. That he’s also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself” – Paul is burdened with a vivid sense of the skull beneath the skin. He is not at home in the world.
How should he spend his days? “Everything was always something but something – and here was the rub – could never be everything.” He tries to lose himself at different times in golf, in playing the banjo, in streaming movies to his TV. He measures out his life in afternoon mochaccinos. He has a love/hate relationship with smartphones and iPads, aka “me-machines”. Obsessive rituals govern his weekly communion with the Boston Red Sox. This, it becomes clear, is bound up with his feelings for his late father (also a fanatical Sox fan) who was bipolar and committed suicide.
We get poignant, strange glimpses of Paul’s early life – his father’s “tendency to bring home all the irons for sale at the Sears and then stand over the sink and cry while my mom returned them”; “he’d start to redo the bathroom grout or lay new linoleum in the kitchen with any other man’s new-project gusto, and when it was exactly one-third complete he’d leave, drive some distance, sell the car for some low figure, and walk home and hand the money to my mother, weeping.”
Paul is in love with his receptionist, Connie, with whom he conducted an unsuccessful relationship that has since ended, in large part over his terror of bringing children into the world. When Paul is in love he relinquishes all sense of self in his infatuation. He falls in love not only with the women in question but with their families. He longs to belong to these families – and develops, by extension, a complicated and almost obsessive relationship with the communities of faith to which they belong. The first big love was Catholic; the second, Jewish. He offended the family of the first by proclaiming his atheism; the second, by a gauche philosemitism.
The engine of the plot touches in oblique ways on all of these preoccupations. Out of the blue, Paul finds out that someone has set up a fairly professional-looking website for his dental practice. He is alarmed and enraged. He wants it taken down. Then someone starts a Twitter account, ostensibly in his name, and someone purporting to be him starts making edits on Wikipedia.
This someone, it emerges, is preoccupied by biblical apocrypha. Quotations from cockeyed scriptures start to proliferate, telling the story of the descendants of a benighted Old Testament tribe called the Amalekites who struck a slightly different deal with God. They were commanded not to believe in God, but to doubt Him; and their descendants, the “Ulms” were scattered invisibly across the earth.
Ferris has a lot of fun with the scripture: “One gets the impression, from later cantonments, that the group Safek – formerly Agag, king of the Amalekites – finally manages to gin up with his message of doubt consists of misfits, rejects, ex-slaves, heretics, whores, knuckledraggers from the Neolithic, and a few of your more comely lepers, all atop dehydrated camels and traipsing across the Bible’s inhospitable terrain. The weird thing is, nobody bothers them.”
It isn’t clear, at first, whether this is the Fight Club-style story of a fractured personality – that Paul, effectively, is impersonating himself – or something stranger. The answer, at the risk of being accused of including spoilers, is: something stranger. Enter a melancholy billionaire with a taste for cheap lunch, an eccentric dental patient, an antiquarian book dealer, a shadowy cult leader, Connie’s shrewd old uncle and a whole lot of metaphysical pratfalls.
There’s a tincture of Pynchonian paranoia à la The Crying of Lot 49 here, and a dash, too, of the kitchen-sink comic winsomeness that the Dave Eggers generation brought to US literary fiction.
The plot is ramshackle and (you suspect) incompletely thought through. Yet the comic exuberance of the writing and the compelling awfulness of Paul’s neuroses just about bring you through. Here is something that – more often than not successfully – marries a serious inquiry into the condition of a human soul with the wan recognition that, as well as having souls, we step on banana skins. It drops, as was once said of Stevie Smith, the stone of bathos through the waters of pathos. This is Paul writing an impassioned email to his tormentor: “ ‘I will not be contained by my news feeds and online purchases, by your complicated algorithms for simplifying a man. Watch me break out of the hole you put me in. I am a man, not an animal in a cafe.’
Goddamn auto correct. I wrote back immediately.
‘I meant ‘cage’.’ ”