To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
By Joshua Ferris
Little, Brown and Company, 352 pages
Paul O’ Rourke is a miserable man. To an outside observer, his life looks fine: He is a dentist with a thriving Park Avenue practice, a nice apartment in Brooklyn Heights, and all the usual upper-middle-class perks. To Paul, however, the world is a dismal place. The mouths his patients open wide aren’t just mouths; they’re doorways to “an interior most people would rather not contemplate—where cancer starts, where the heart is broken, where the soul might just fail to turn up.” Cavities are “the eye stones of skulls”; molars “stand erect as tombstones.” Even urging his patients to floss is much more than standard office procedure; to Paul, it represents “what I called hope, what I called courage, above all what I called defiance” against the inevitable time when “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.”
Everyday happiness does not cheer Paul, who sees right through the shallow pleasures that sustain lesser mortals. “Everything was always something,” he complains. “But something—and here was the rub—could never be everything.” No hobby or diversion or relationship or cultural pursuit outlasts his disdain. He balks at ordinary courtesies, refusing to greet his staff politely (“I would say good morning sparingly, begrudgingly, injudiciously, or tyrannically…What was so good about it anyway, the too-often predictable, so-called new morning?”). He worships his girlfriends until the inevitable moment when he doesn’t, and then he sabotages the relationship and picks their characters apart. Even Paul’s obsessive love for the Boston Red Sox has curdled: “The greatest disappointment of my adult life came in 2004, when the Red Sox stole the pennant from the Yankees and won the World Series,” he says, gloomily.
In other words, Paul O’Rourke is a whiny, pretentious jerk. And thanks to a relentless first-person narrative that’s composed almost exclusively of angry rants, we’re stuck inside his roiling, misanthropic brain for the entirety of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris’s third novel.
What Paul would really like, he says, is to believe in God. Religion, he thinks, could be the something that is everything, if only he could submerge his “reasoned, stubborn, skeptical thoughts” long enough to truly buy in. But Paul can’t be bothered to read the Bible, which reduces him to “tears of terminal boredom.” He taunts his Catholic hygienist with obnoxious jabs at her faith, and he sneers at the great churches of Europe, which he visited with his office assistant/ex-girlfriend Connie. “To me, a church is simply a place to be bored in,” he says, after calling Connie (who’s Jewish) a hypocrite for acting as if “the real God, the god of Dante and chiaroscuro, of flying buttresses and Bach” could be found in a European cathedral. Paul holds Judaism, which he finds “blessedly free of punishment and priggishness,” in slightly higher regard than Christianity, but his truly embracing any religion is out of the question.
Over and over, he insists that he is categorically unable to believe in anything as absurd as God, and he never misses a chance to scoff at those who do believe. “I’m not immu ne to the allure of their fellowship of comforts. I, too, like to take part in sanctifications, hand-holdings, and large-hearted sing-alongs,” he sniffs. “But I would be damned, literally damned, if any God I might believe in wanted me to go along with the given prescriptions.”
The real problem, then, isn’t that Paul is reasoned and stubborn and skeptical. The real problem is that he’s a snob. When the plot takes a religious turn, we rub our hands together in glee: Surely Ferris must be setting his protagonist up for some kind of divine reckoning. What a treat it will be to see this awful man brought to his knees in humility or worship or both! One unremarkable day, a patient still woozy from anesthesia buttonholes Paul in the waiting room, insisting that they’re both members of a mysterious sect called the “Ulms.” Then a website for Paul’s practice—with strange, Biblical-sounding quotations appended to his biography—pops up on the Internet. Paul, furious, emails the site administrator to demand that the page be taken down. “I don’t appreciate being associated with any system of belief. I’m an atheist,” he insists. But Paul’s fictive online presence mushrooms, and soon his Ulm-obsessed doppelganger is posting and tweeting and commenting in Paul’s name all over the Web.
We are subsequently forced to endure Paul’s semi-hysterical rants—none of which breaks new ground—about the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, iPhones (which Paul, proudly, calls “me-machines”), emoticons (Paul despises them but uses them anyway), and numerous other topics (cellphone contact lists, celebrity magazines, reality television) only tangentially related to the theft of Paul’s identity. The way Connie moisturizes her hands vexes Paul for five full pages. It’s difficult to convey just how tiresome this is. Only the idea that we are headed for a payoff—throughout, Ferris teases the reader with little snippets of plot—keeps us turning the pages.
Ferris introduces an enigmatic hedge-fund billionaire who may or may not be an Ulm and weaves together a hodgepodge of intrigue based on the themes of persecution, exile, skepticism, and cultish secrecy. There are ancient manuscripts, religious historians, rare-book dealers, and mysterious messengers who appear in Paul’s office bearing coded messages. There’s even a sexy “forensic anthropologist” in a Red Sox cap, who shows up with genealogical documents proving Paul’s an Ulm. What’s more, Ulmish doctrine looks interesting at first. Its central tenets seem to involve martyrdom and doubt, exile and belonging, and persecution and entitlement; in other words, it’s a perfect cult for Paul, whose emotional state perpetually toggles between all of the above. As Paul’s correspondence with his online double flourishes, he is challenged and catechized; slowly, he begins to drop his guard. Perhaps the Ulms will do an end run around Paul’s religious antipathy, and Ferris’s novel will turn out to be a thought-provoking saga of modern-day conversion. Perhaps we’ll even get to see Paul grow up.
Unfortunately, this collapses into a confusing, inchoate mess. After straining much too hard to make too many metaphysical points, Ferris fumbles his plot: Several 11th-hour digressions (including a long story involving a doomed romance between the founder of Ulmism and an Orthodox Jew) fatally cripple the narrative. Ferris does allow Paul an embarrassingly trite moment of revelation: After a long dark night of the soul on his balcony in Brooklyn, Paul concludes that his own life, “and the city’s and the world’s every carefree, winsome hour, were perfectly without meaning.” Several pages later, he doesn’t even make sense. “I was having a thought that was identical to other people’s. I was on the inside with this thought,” he blathers. “No longer alien to the in. I was in the very in.”
Ferris is a writer of talent; his first novel (And Then We Came to the End) was an engaging, affectionate, and beautifully crafted send-up of a Chicago advertising agency, while his second (The Unnamed) was both eerie and fascinating. But To Rise Again at a Decent Hour isn’t in their league. In the end, it’s a baffling, nonsensical disappointment.