‘To Rise Again’ a brilliant mess of a novel
Joshua Ferris’s new novel is about a dentist, and like a good dentist, Ferris welcomes us in with a few jokes and some distracting chitchat. By the time we realize what we’re in for, we’re flat on our backs, staring wildly at our own reflection in the goggles of a person we’re not sure we should trust.
If you’re afraid of dentists or demanding fiction, back away because To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a brilliant mess of a novel that drills at a raw nerve of existential dread. It’s a deceptively comic treatment of Emily Dickinson’s claim that “Narcotics cannot still the Tooth/ That nibbles at the soul.” Ferris has managed to blend the clever satire of his first book, Then We Came to the End, with the grinding despair of his second, The Unnamed. The result is a witty story that chews on internet scams, relationship killers, crackpot theology, baseball mania and the desperate loneliness of modern life.
Plotting in the traditional sense is not Ferris’s prime interest – or his strongest talent. What matters to him is how characters respond to the approaching darkness. No matter the setting, for Ferris, it’s always Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the Rest of Us. There’s some complication in this third novel – even some remnants of intrigue – but we’re locked in the endlessly spiraling mind of Paul O’Rourke, D.D.S., a functional depressive with a successful practice in New York City. Peering into the moist maw of one patient after another – seeing the incipient rot, noting the early signs of mortality – has only exacerbated his angst. This is a man who can’t get a puppy because someday it might die; he doesn’t want kids because that would take suicide off the table.
And so he has poured his enthusiasm into one hobby and relationship after another, only to grow bored – or to frighten away the objects of his affection. Even God has proved inadequate to his boundless zeal. “I would have liked to believe in God,” he tells us, but church is just “a place to be bored in” and the Bible offers only “firmament, superlong middle part, Jesus.”
These erratic musings of a “misanthropic and chronically unhappy” man are interrupted one day by a mysterious encounter. “My life didn’t really begin,” Paul tells us, “until several months before the fateful Red Sox summer of 2011.” Someone he doesn’t know well insists on having a tooth extracted without any anesthetic; instead, the patient wants to rely on Tibetan meditation techniques. “I’m not actually here physically,” the man claims. As you might expect, that doesn’t work well, but as the patient leaves, he whispers, “I’m going to Israel. I’m an Ulm, and so are you!”
That enigmatic remark trips a cascade of strange events, starting with the creation of a nice-looking website for Paul’s practice – a website that Paul never sanctioned nor requested. If this is identity theft, it seems like the best kind to suffer. But while Paul tries to shut down that unauthorized site, phony Twitter and Facebook accounts using his name start offering comments about the modern-day descendants of Amalek.
If you know the Hebrew Bible, you may recognize the Amalekites as the ancient and eternal enemy of the Jews, but Paul, of course, has never managed to make it past “the barren wives and the kindred wraths and all the rest of it.” Now, however, he’s infected by curiosity about this faux version of himself online, and soon he’s drawn into a labyrinth of websites either condemning the Amalekites or celebrating them as an ancient sect of religious doubters who have been unfairly maligned. It’s just the sort of occult, incendiary debate that metastasizes all over the internet, inflaming anti-Semites, alarming the Anti-Defamation League and leaving Paul ever more entangled in the strident, quasi-academic claims of shadowy kooks. While ignoring his patients and frightening his staff, he grows convinced of his own seriousness and sincerity.