by Joshua Ferris
Healthy teeth are much more important to one’s overall constitution than I ever gave them credit for. It all ties in, as I learned from reading Joshua Ferris’ To Rise Again at a Decent Hour- not a dentistry textbook but an offbeat novel about a dentist who becomes the victim of an elaborate stolen-identity mishap.
Paul O’Rourke is an anxious character and that feeling of anxiety, that on-the-edge-mental-game between suppression and collapse, permeates the novel from the first to last. Paul is coddled by his routines and hampered by his inability to hope for anything better- a sort of secret nihilist (“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”). The twist occurs when our hapless dentist discovers that someone has created a website on behalf of his dental practice-in the guise of O’Rourke himself. He has previously refused to create one, staying away from the internet and social media full stop, and his initial thought is that the website has been hoisted upon him by one of his three employees- which includes former girlfriend Connie. Then comes an unasked-for Twitter account, with someone tweeting about religion under Paul’s name, and emails on a mysterious religious group called the Ulms. Paul’s distress mounts as he attempts to uncover who is this other Paul O’Rourke and what is he doing.
There are moments in the novel when the history of the Ulms bog down the story, taking on such breadth and detail that it feels more like Ferris was having too much fun to rein it in. Nevertheless, the writing is so impressive that I genuinely mourned the end of the novel’s characters, world, and idea. There are quotable lines to be enjoyed, such as: “…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”.
For a book that so often delves deep into the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety, this is nevertheless a hopeful and often hilarious novel.