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Banal retentive: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

In his new, Booker-longlisted novel, Joshua Ferris retains his title as the poet of the modern workplace, but his invented religion, Ulmism, proves to be a pretty dry excuse for a quest.

Dentist.
Let me see those pearly whites. Photograph: Getty Images.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour 
Joshua Ferris
Viking, 352pp, £16.99

Meet Paul O’Rourke. Paul is a wealthy, misanthropic, middle-aged dentist with a sparkling private practice on Park Avenue in New York City. He is both an atheist and a Luddite and, like many atheists and Luddites, he is utterly obsessed with religion and technology. He derives genuine, if all too infrequent, satisfaction from drilling and filling rotten cavities but comes unstuck on the question of flossing. “What’s the point?” he asks. “In the end, the heart stops, the cells die, the neurons go dark . . . and the teeth float away with the tide.”

It is Paul’s staff who suffer most from this existential griping. “I am haunted,” he whines in the ear of the head hygienist, Betsy Conroy, a devout Christian. “You think I alienate myself from society? 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.”

Paul’s distaste for other people seems to stem, ironically, from a deep and nagging yearning to belong. He has no family to speak of (father, suicide; mother, mad) and no religious tradition to fall back on – unless a ritualistic entanglement with the Boston Red Sox counts. He would like to make peace with the world, but cannot, provoking outbursts from him on everything from hand lotion to the ubiquity of the emoticon “:)”.

“My relationship with the internet was like the one I had with the :),” he explains. “I hated the :) and hated to be the object of other people’s :), their :-) and their :>. I hated :-)) the most because it reminded me of my double chin . . . I swore never to use the emoticon ever . . . until one day, offhandedly and without much thought, I used my first :) and, shortly thereafter, in spite of my initial resistance, :) became a regular staple of my daily correspondence.”

Each of Paul’s former girlfriends is selected initially for her mouth – a window not to the soul, but to the gory space in which it fails to materialise – and also for the “close-knit and conservative families” they bring with them. Take the Plotzes – the large, happy, Jewish family that produced Connie Plotz, who remains an employee at O’Rourke Dental despite the couple’s acrimonious break-up. (“I don’t get pussy whipped,” he explains in one of a handful of jokes that misfire spectacularly, “I get cunt gripped.”) Likewise the Santacroces, “a picture-perfect family of Catholics whose tidy garage, sturdy oak trees, and family portraits through the ages would absolve all the sins and correct all the shortcomings of my childhood”. In each case Paul comes on too strong and ruins his chances. “I would affirm God and convert to Catholicism and condemn abortion and drink Martinis,” he asserts, failing to remember that Sam Santa­croce is more than just a glossy lower lip and gets a say in their relationship, too.

In Ferris’s 2007 debut, Then We Came to the End, it is the sense of unity fostered by the grinding tedium of office life that makes office life bearable. That novel is narrated in the first-person plural by the staff at a failing Chicago-based advertising firm, a communal “we” that stands in stark contrast to O’Rourke’s lacerating “I”: “ ‘We love you, Paul.’ It was really that ‘we’ I wanted more than anything else,” he says. “For all my proud assertions of self, I really only wanted to be smothered in the embrace of an inclusive and coercive singular ‘we’.”

So it seems a little uncanny, even miraculous, when Connie discovers a website and Twitter account spewing pseudo-religious propaganda in Paul’s name. Her discovery signals the beginning of the plotty part of the novel. Paul is told he is an “Ulm”: the member of an ancient tribe formed by the Amalekites – a people mentioned in Genesis and 1 Chronicles, most of whom were slain at God’s command by the Israelites – in the process of forging an irredentist pact in the desert wastes of southern Israel. What makes them unique is their affirmation of faith: to become an Ulm one must doubt the existence of God.

Ulmism is the Hitchensian Church of Atheism given form and substance, and a pretty dry excuse for a quest. Ultimately it is Paul’s voice – crude, indignant, irate – that is most memorable. The desire for “connectivity” is an honest cry from a lonely professional, one that could be explored without the diversion to ersatz religion. His reflections on the day-to-day – “Pizza Fridays were no small thing”; afternoon mochaccinos are “a little joy” – ensure Ferris retains his title as the poet of the modern workplace, while the story of the Ulms strays on to dodgy ground. “Say what you will about the tragedies of the Jews,” declares the group’s leader, Grant Arthur, in the process of mythologising his own, more extreme version of Paul’s rejection by the Plotzes, “at least they have been documented.”

It is no surprise To Rise Again . . . has made the Man Booker longlist, now that Americans are being welcomed into that hitherto British-imperial sect. It signals the late acknowledgement of American preoccupations in our literature: heritage, self-determination, Israel – but if it wins I’ll eat my hat. And I could. I have a great dentist.