I think a lot of atheists at times feel envious for those who can believe and the spiritual comfort that religion brings. I’ve always been an atheist and I don’t want to subscribe to any religion. Nor do I think anyone should. But there can be a clear sense of community and solace that comes with having convictions in a higher power. It can feel lonely at times refusing that comfort when you find yourself caught on the end of an existentialist tree branch. In Joshua Ferris’ new novel “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour” he takes a man trapped in this sort of quandary and tests him. You could almost take this quote from another novel I read recently “Em and the Big Hoom” by Jerry Pinto “being an atheist offers a terrible problem. There is nothing you can do with the feeling that the world has done you wrong or that you, in turn, have hurt someone” and say that Ferris has written a protagonist with exactly this problem.
Paul O'Rourke is a hard working dentist with a successful practice in Manhattan. He has an aversion to using the internet other than anonymously posting on some forums about baseball so he doesn't have a website or profiles on any social media sites. He emphatically rants: “I was a dentist, not a website. I was a muddle, not a brand. I was a man, not a profile. They wanted to contain my life with a summary of its purchases and preferences, prescription medications, and predictable behaviors. That was not a man. That was an animal in a cage.” It's a frustrated position that many people who willing engage online can certainly sympathize with. However, one day Paul's staff discover a website for his dental practice in addition to a Twitter account for Paul and responses to prominent newspaper articles online in his name. His identity has been convincingly stolen, but the person posing as him rants about a religion that no one has heard of. Paul angrily tries to reclaim his online presence and gets caught up in bizarre theological mind games with a man who is convinced Paul belongs to an ancient sect of persecuted people who actively doubt God's existence.
There is a section in the novel where Dr O’Rourke examines the mouth of a respectable businessman at his office. He finds a few cavities. Although he can see the cavities clearly on his x-ray, the man refuses any treatment because he doesn’t feel like he has cavities. No reasoning from the doctor can get him to change his mind. This sort of inverse logic based on immediate feelings rather than rational thought seems central to the novel. We can know there is a problem and it could be staring us in the face, but we don’t feel like it will really affect us until it does. After his father died early in his life, Paul is a man who has always desperately wanted to belong to a family and established group with all the accompanying traditions and sense of security. By ignoring the real motivation behind his desperate attempts to attach himself to his girlfriends’ families and their religious traditions he isn’t able to admit what he really wants and never finds real happiness.
This all is beginning to make this novel sound too ponderous. While it engages with these issues it's also fantastically funny and full of wry observations. Ferris' style of writing is very easy to read with a narrator that has a conversational tone of voice. He rants about his patients, modern life and American culture. Since he finds himself longing without knowing exactly what he wants he wishes for the immediate comforts that commercialism can bring: “a mall returned me to a time when desire was easy to resolve.” He goes to eat at the Olive Garden as a nostalgic treat. Paul is very sympathetic but the reader learns to not entirely trust him either based on the reactions of people around him who find him increasingly erratic in behaviour and disassociated from what's happening. His past is gradually revealed, particularly his bizarre obsessive behaviour with certain girlfriends and it becomes clear something is very wrong with Paul. A particularly clever trick that Ferris employs is when Paul converses with his office secretary who is an older religious woman. He cuts out Paul's speech and only gives her impatient responses which allows the reader to perfectly imagine the comic scene with Paul grouchily ranting at her.
“To Rise Again at a Decent Hour” is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Ferris cleverly encapsulates a lot of issues about modern life in his story. At times the narrative about the new religion seems to gallop at a pace which becomes confusing. But what Ferris is most successful at is making Paul's observations about his patients and issues around dental hygiene take on a comic universal meaning. While a statement like “pain forgets within the hour what it learns in an instant” may instantly apply to the way people forgot to care for their teeth after experiencing difficult dental work, it also applies to the way we physically and emotionally engage with the world. I'm eager now to go back and read Ferris' two previous novels as his writing technique and sense of humour are truly admirable.