As the first fifty or so pages of Joshua Ferris’ third novel flow easily through the neurotic first person narration of Paul O’Rourke, a dentist consumed with equal parts disdain and longing for normal social interaction, you might suddenly realise, nothing has happened yet. Yet this first section is an absolute delight, bursting with inventive anecdotes and observations charting the disillusionment, the sterile banality of middle aged comfort in New York City with the added bitterly self-limiting qualities of an extreme introvert. Ferris charts masterfully Paul’s various social failings and warped observations, taking aim at among others: organised religion, consumer decadence, the “connectivity” of the internet and, of course, people whose oral hygiene presents him with a ” picture of inconceivable self-neglect and unnecessary pain”.
These ranting excursions create a fractured picture of O’Rourke’s life, his compulsively solitary home life dominated by an almost religious zeal for the Boston Red Sox, and his successful dental practice now located on the exclusive Park Avenue. This mix of social failure and professional achievement becomes something of a focus as O’Rourke struggles to define himself, spending his “free time” in a listless dissatisfaction, finding little joy in his ritualistic watching and recording of sport yet unwilling to socialise with “a bunch of dweeby dentists” at social functions.
The mouth often serves as a symbol of degeneration and mortality as Ferris’ dentist laments the striking inadequacy of his profession to cure, instead pandering to the cosmetic whims of the privileged in search of the perfect celebrity smile. O’Rourke inability to believe in any higher power troubles him, leaving him spiritually rootless albeit equally contemptuous of his religious colleagues. He points to the suffering of poverty- stricken children on an Indian excursion, pointing to their mouths as evidence enough for his atheism: “‘How much respect did the good Lord show these kids?’ Pulp necrosis, tongue lesions, goiter like presentations on account of the abscesses…the malnutrition that follows the impossibility of eating. Those tender mouths never stood a chance.” Part of the magnificent subtlety of Paul’s outbursts of poetic disaffection is Ferris’ use of direct discourse, which is fragmented amongst these speeches, leaving the extent of Paul’s feelings unvoiced to those around him, burying his most painfully observed moments in interior monologue. This results in the reader experiencing the inner fire of a man who at times is so economic with his language, and so concerned by what he airs in public that he tactically withholds “good mornings”, viewing them as a “ceremonial” inconsequence.
So far, so effortlessly enjoyable. Where Ferris’ novel unfortunately stumbles, is in the main thrust of the novel’s plot. On discovering that, a website along with social media profiles has been set up in his name and without his permission or knowledge, Paul’s outrage is heightened by the seemingly religious propaganda that is being attributed to him online. Ultimately, Paul discovers the website creator is an “Ulm”, a member of an entirely fictitious group, the Amalekites, which supposedly appear in the Old Testament prior to their destruction by the Israelites at the command of God. To be an “Ulm” is to be in doubt; Paul slowly slips into membership of this sect of (non)believers. Though Ferris continues to produce some anecdotal gems, too much time and energy is wasted in the novel discovering the extremely dry theological history of the “Ulms”; perhaps this may be necessary to convince an obsessive insomniac like O’Rourke that he is something special, but for the reader it is a markedly dull affair, particularly after a start which fizzed with such energy and promise and possibility.
There is much to love about Ferris’ novel. Yet To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is tethered to a plot which though thematically relevant, if Paul’s non-belief provides a sort of social salvation, ultimately fails to fulfill the promise of a stunning opening assault on modern life.