Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.
PAUL O’Rourke — dentist, pessimist, atheist — a man who spends all day excavating the mouths of strangers, inspecting disease, cavities, bleeding gums and rank infections. A man who doesn’t make much of an effort to keep up with the technological changes around him, resenting everyone’s interest in social media — “The world was a sufficient trial …before Facebook” — looking down on everyone with a “me-machine” and admitting he is the “worst of the hypocrites, of all the hypocrites, the cruel and phoney hypocrites, [he is] the worst.” Paul O’Rourke is not a nice guy. But he is ridiculous, righteous in his own way and utterly insufferable very often. So when someone begins to impersonate him online, turning his life entirely upside down, the results are absolutely hilarious.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is Joshua Ferris’ third novel, following The Unnamed and his much lauded debut, Then We Came to the End. Here, Ferris really is in top form. The hilarity he’s known for, the sharp ear for dialogue, the astute understanding of human nature — it’s all here, all finely tuned. “The mouth is a weird place,” begins Paul. “Not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between: dark, wet, admitting access 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.”
Paul’s soul often fails to turn up. He’s successful and busy, but his life is empty of any meaning. With no close family (his mother is in a home for the elderly; an incredibly poignant scene shows how little interaction they now have, leaving Paul with so much to say) and no friends to speak of, his primary interactions are with his patients and with the three women who work at his practice. Abby, Paul’s dental assistant, who may well be judging him from behind the pink paper mask that obscures her features, is reticent and silent. Mrs Conway, his hygienist, is a devout Catholic who has little patience for Paul’s various neurosis: “I am haunted, Betsy,” he complains to her. “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.” “Are you quite finished now?” she replies, “This is turning out to be one of the longest ordeals of my life.”
The third woman at Paul’s practice is Connie, the receptionist — Paul’s ex-girlfriend, poet and his connection to the Jewish family he so wanted to feel a part of, wondering if he could be “Jewish-ish”. Paul and Connie, when together, lived a life that seemed full, making the most of New York City, frequently eating at fancy restaurants where, after struggling to get a table, they ate, drank and then “paid and went home and felt wasted and dull, and in the morning we wondered where we should go next.” Now, Paul wonders if he should have fired Connie after they broke up, but didn’t, “because she was always in need of money, on account of the poetry.”
Paul is adamant, however, in his refusal to engage with the world on another platform. “I was already at one remove before the Internet came along,” he argues. “Now I have to spend the time that I’m not doing the thing they’re doing reading about them doing it? Streaming all the clips of them doing it, commenting on how lucky they are to be doing all those things, liking and digging and bookmarking and posting and tweeting all those things and feeling more disconnected than ever?”
One day, Paul encounters a strange patient who, while having an extraction, chants, “soft and low … intoning something like, ‘Ah-rum … ah-rum …’” and is prepared to have the extraction without any anaesthetic, insisting that he has left his physical self behind. “I have effected emptiness to the extreme,” says the man, who eventually asks to be gassed out so his tooth can be pulled out. When the gas wears off, the patient tells Paul “with a sour anaesthetic breath,” “I’m an Ulm, and so are you!”
Paul thinks nothing of this strange comment, until the day he comes across the man pretending to be him online. Not just has this person set up a website for Paul’s dentistry practice, but he has also set up Facebook and Twitter accounts for the dentist, much to Paul’s amazement. “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 behaviours. That was not a man. That was an animal in a cage,” he rants, horrified that this impostor seems to know him very well, representing him oddly well online.
And if that isn’t enough, the online version of Paul begins to quote scripture — something that irks the real Paul, who has no interest in religion. He isn’t able to place the passages being quoted right away, having never really read any scripture: “I’ve tried reading the Bible. I never make it past all the talk about the firmament … at the first mention of the firmament I start bleeding tears of terminal boredom.” He goes unsuccessfully between Catholic Mrs Conway and Jewish Connie, asking for their assistance to work out what his online persona seems to be getting at, with a strange fascination with the Ulm — a lost tribe of Israel, descendants of Amalek, a people from the Hebrew Bible who have all but been wiped from history.
Things get a little esoteric here, with Paul trying to understand the Ulm, who seem to believe that God wants them to doubt him (yeah, it’s complicated and the foray into the history of the Ulm does seem confusing) and are attempting to explain to Paul that he is one of a long line of Amalekites. What will Paul do with this information? Will it fill the gaping holes in his life that he has been unable to fill so far?
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is smart, funny and sad. It’s a completely contemporary look at human nature and existential angst in a world of intense technological connectivity and at the stark loneliness of one man desperate to belong, a person who could be any one of us — “The day is hard enough,” says Paul, desperate, “don’t leave me alone with the night.”