In Joshua Ferris’s latest novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (recently long-listed for the Man Booker Award), a dentist protagonist asks the big questions we all sometimes ponder: what is the meaning of life, and what is the meaning of my particular life? It also highlights some of the dental calamities that directly result from failure to use best practices in oral hygiene. If you’re not a regular flosser, you may change your ways.
Dentist Paul O’Rourke works hard and makes plenty of money at his successful Upper East Side practice, but existentially he’s in a morass. The deepest current within him is his sense of life’s fundamental futility. Outside of work, he cares primarily about the Red Sox, and feels lonely most of the time. He is recently estranged from his girlfriend and office manager, Connie (no surprise). Enter an imposter thief who hijacks Paul’s online identity and begins to post increasingly detailed religious “history” stretching back to biblical times. This Paul claims membership in the lost tribe of “Amalekites,” allegedly massacred by the Jews centuries before. As the true Paul interacts with his doppelgänger, he finds his own beliefs and identity shifting in unsettling ways. Is it possible that the identity thief has led him to his true identity?
When dating Connie, a Jew, Paul had devoted himself to Judaism and Jewish history so passionately and with such fervor that Connie’s uncle said his love for Judaism had actually become anti-Semitic. In his prior relationship with Samantha, he had been equally in love with Samantha and her Roman Catholic family (“I would affirm God and convert to Catholicism and condemn abortion and drink martinis and glory the dollar and assist the poor and crawl upon the face of the earth with righteousness and do everything that made the Santacroces so self-evidently not the O’Rourkes”). One of the serious questions posed by this book is whether it is possible to find meaning in life outside of organized religion and – more importantly – the community it provides.
I’ve possibly made this book sound heavier than it is. It’s also very funny. Take for instance this interaction between Paul and Betty Convoy, the head hygienist in Paul’s office and a devout Roman Catholic. She is full of matronly and Christianly wisdom, and she makes Paul crazy:
Say I’d come in from outside and go straight to the sink to wash my hands. It didn’t matter which sink, Mrs. Convoy would find me. She’d sniff at me like a bloodhound and then she’d say, “What exactly have you been doing?” I’d tell her, and she’d say, “Why do you feel the need to lie to me?” I’d tell her, and she’d say, “Scrutiny does not kill people. Smoking kills people. What kind of example do you think you’re setting for your patients by sneaking off to smoke cigarettes?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “They do not need a reminder of ‘the futility of it all’ from their dental professional. When did you take up smoking again?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “Oh for heaven’s sake. Then why did you tell everyone you had quit?” I’d tell her, she’d say “I do not see how the occasional show of concern is ‘utterly strangulating.’ I would like to see you live up to your potential, that is all. Don’t you wish you had more self-control?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “Of course I will not join you. What are you doing? Do not light that cigarette!” I’d put the cigarettes away with an offhand remark, she’d say, “How am I a trial? I am not the trial here. The trial is between you and your addictions. Do you want to ruin your lungs and die a young man?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “You are not already in hell. Shall I tell you what hell will be like? I’d answer, she’d say, “Yes, as a matter of fact, any conversation can turn into a discussion on the salvation of the soul. It’s a pity more don’t. What are you doing at that window?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “We are on the first floor. You would hardly manage to sprain an ankle.”
Joshua Ferris’s first novel, Then We Came to the End, won the PEN/Hemingway Award, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and was named one of the New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year. I can’t remember a thing about his second book, The Unnamed, though I did read it. I’m sure that’s all on me, not him. The short list for this year’s Man Booker Award will be announced September 9th, and I’ll send a breaking news report if To Rise Again at a Decent Hour makes the cut. I hope it does! In other great news, Joshua Ferris will be participating in this year’s Southern Festival of Books in Nashville the second weekend of October, including the Authors in the Round Dinner on Friday, October 10th. For tickets to the dinner, and other information about the Festival – free and open to the public all weekend – please visit the website of sponsor Humanities Tennessee.