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

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.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser