Joshua Ferris Examines the Life of a Cyberstalking Victim in New Book

Lee Polevoi


To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

By Joshua Ferris

Little, Brown

337 pages


It takes no small amount of authorial nerve to make your novel's main character a 40-year-old atheist Park Avenue dentist. But Joshua Ferris mined gold dust from the dross of ordinary office life in his stunning debut novel, Then We Came to the End. Anxiety over cubicle hierarchy and similarly mundane issues in a nameless Chicago ad agency took on existentialist proportions, and the novel was very funny to boot. No reason to think Ferris couldn’t pull off the same trick in the unpromising arena of professional dental care.


The opening paragraph of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour instantly captures the voice of his protagonist, Paul O’Rourke, a prosperous Manhattan-based dentist:


“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.”


Assisting Paul is Connie, his former girlfriend and office receptionist; Abby, a competent but virtually monk-silent dental assistant; and Mrs. Betsy Convoy, his head hygienist. Mrs. Convoy is a devout Roman Catholic, with whom Paul regularly spars over a wide range of topics, including improvements to office efficiency, the Roman Catholic Church, and the relative merits of creating a Facebook page for his dental practice. Their exchanges in the early pages of the novel are funny and frustrating in the loopy logic Ferris captured so perfectly in his first novel.


The plot, such as it is, kicks in when Paul discovers that someone, perhaps a former patient, has begun to impersonate him online. First, a new company website appears (not of Paul’s doing), with more or less accurate staff bios for everyone but him (which instead of facts about his life promulgates strange notions about religion). Then there’s a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a Wikipedia entry—every upsetting development reported to Paul by Connie or Mrs. Convoy while he’s hard at work deep inside the mouths of his patients.


This turn of events is especially aggravating because Paul O’Rourke is no fan of the Internet. He’s been doing fine so far without it (he thinks), obsessively following his beloved Red Sox and maintaining a successful practice. What’s the point of social media anyway?


“I was already at one remove before the Internet came along. I need another remove? Now I have to spend the time that I’m not doing the thing they’re doing reading about them doing it? Streaming all the clips of them doing it, commenting on how lucky they are to be doing all those things, liking and digging and bookmarking and posting and tweeting all those things, and feeling more disconnected than ever? Where does this idea of greater connection come from? I’ve never in my life felt more disconnected. It’s like how the rich get richer. The connected get more connected while the disconnected get more disconnected. No thanks, man, I can’t do it.”


To Rise Again at a Decent Hour moves forward in fits and starts, interrupted by Paul’s many digressions. Then, roughly a third of the way in, Ferris unleashes a pseudo-Biblical history of something called the Ulms and the Amalekites and the Cantaveticles—purportedly the ravings of Paul’s cyberspace stalker—from which the novel, at least for this reader, never recovers.


More detailed descriptions of Ulmism follow, interspersed with Paul’s various memories of childhood, a loving but suicidal father, his own tormented love affairs, and so on. The narrative falters, overburdened by religious oddity and strained by implausibility and murky character motivation.


Still, there’s that narrator’s inimitable voice:


“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 fakes, and paints to match. Open cavities are the eye stones of skulls, and lone molars stand erect as tombstones.”


Joshua Ferris has done a masterful job of inhabiting the body and soul of a troubled dental professional. Where he’s chosen to take this individual remains something of a mystery.


Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi is completing a novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.

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