The Camus of Caries

05.06.14

Joshua Ferris’s New Novel Chronicles an Existential Dentist in Despair

Dentistry, dread, philosophy, Old Testament Amalekites, and Red Sox Nation mix it up in Joshua Ferris’s new novel.

“How much reverence can you have,” Joseph Heller’s Yossarian asks in Catch-22, “for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation?” This question plagues the dentist protagonist and narrator of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris’s third novel, which takes its epigraph from the Book of Job. Paul O’Rourke goes to his successful Park Avenue practice, looks in mouths, and finds there entropy unto death. Yossarian was mortality-haunted because people were shooting at him. O’Rourke is in his late 30s, in good health, safely housed in Brooklyn Heights, and has his beloved Red Sox to watch on TV or VCR every night. But when patients open their jaws, he totters on the abyss and gets no steadying hand from God.

O’Rourke is a character you don’t meet much nowadays, an old-school existentialist. Although he doesn’t read Heidegger’s Being and Time, Sartre’s Nausea, Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, or Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Ferris has O’Rourke feel from tooth rot, gum disease, and oral cancer what those books describe. Not the Irish Catholic his name might imply, O’Rourke has attempted Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” twice—once when he tried to marry into an Italian Catholic family, once into a Jewish family—but failed both times because he wanted to belong to a clan, not an absurd God. So, like Yossarian, O’Rourke is stuck with just enough haphazard belief in the Judeo-Christian God to mock His slipshod creation.

Most of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour takes place in O’Rourke’s office, and Ferris is an authority on existence in cubicles. His first novel, Then We Came to the End, is set in a large advertising agency and uses the office’s first-person plural point of view to tell his numerous characters’ stories. The Unnamed begins in a law firm from which the protagonist feels compelled to walk away again and again. In those two books, the existential shows itself gradually—breast cancer in the first, a physiological tropism in the second. In To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, the four-person dental office is immediately a No Exit zone like the closed-door offices of another Heller protagonist, despairing Bob Slocum of Something Happened.

O’Rourke’s 60ish hygienist, Betsy Convoy, is a devout Catholic whom he tortures with sophomoric insults and circular reasoning, receiving paradoxes and non-sequiturs in return. Receptionist, former lover, and still receptionist Connie Plotz deconstructs his private obsessions and cultural stereotypes. Dental assistant Abby Bower says nothing from behind her mask; like that laconic proto-existentialist Bartleby (in his four-person office), she causes her boss to assume she is thinking his worst thoughts about himself. And the patients? Forget about their mouths and the absurdities that come flying out of them.

O’Rourke’s desire to be “connected”—physically, not just digitally—to a stable family is authentic and, though sometimes crazed, affecting.

For about fifty pages, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour has the rude Black Humor of a reality series called “Desperate Dentists of New York,” ideal reading for all who hope their drill-wielders suffer caries of the spirit. Then the novel morphs into an Internet stalker plot when someone sets up an unauthorized website for the office, uses O’Rourke’s name to post offensive remarks on websites, opens Facebook and Twitter accounts in his name, and emails the dentist from his own address.  After some amusing Job-like rants against the Internet (which O’Rourke can’t stop using between patients), he manages to discover who has assumed his identity and for what purpose: to persuade O’Rourke that he belongs genetically to an ancient Middle Eastern tribe, the Amalekites, thought to have been exterminated by Israelites. Although O’Rourke assumes the plot is some very learned scam, he is attracted to the Amalekites because—in Ferris’s representation—their God’s primary directive is to doubt God. This backflip of faith (or leap of doubt) should solve O’Rourke’s theological problem, but his interest in the Amalekites causes conflicts with Connie, her Orthodox Jewish relatives, and others who accuse O’Rourke of anti-Semitism because the Amalekites are still anathema to Jews.

A master of self-pitying and fad-parodying shtick, O’Rourke is not the most reliable of narrators. There is his superstition about watching every Red Sox game but never the sixth inning. There are his mind-altering insomnia and his addiction to his “me-machine,” his cellphone. He is beset by the memory of his father shooting himself in the family bathtub, and he describes himself as “c—- gripped” by women.  But O’Rourke’s desire to be “connected”—physically, not just digitally—to a stable family is authentic and, though sometimes crazed, affecting. If his impetuous romantic leaps had succeeded, that old monotheistic curse—the Problem of Evil in creation—might have disappeared in a welter of children, in-laws, pets, and hobbies. 

But like the God of Genesis, Ferris created a blunderer, giving the novelist reason to resurrect the Amalekites and use them to investigate the nature of identity in the age of hyper-connectivity. In 2010 a Twitter account in the name of Joshua Ferris posted anti-Semitic comments. This coincidental connection of names or some enemy’s assumption of Ferris’s name may have inspired his identity theft plot—and his creation of a contemporary Amalekite “religion” (the Ulms) and its texts (the Cantaveticles) to pose questions about Jewish identity: Can it be religious without belief in God? If Jewish identity is cultural, does that mean it’s merely cultural? What is the role of genetics in notions of group identity? In the last third of the novel, characters from outside the office work through these questions for O’Rourke’s benefit and the reader’s consideration. 

“Keep clarity,” O’Rourke keeps telling himself. Existential clarity is not lost in the novel’s anthropological fabrication, just processed through more lucid thinking than O’Rourke initially displays. Influenced by but doubting a religion of doubt, he becomes more generous though possibly no less absurd. At novel’s end, he is volunteering at a dental clinic in Katmandu and sees an object he wants to buy: “I was free, in some intoxicatingly existential way, to make such a radical move, bound no more by superstition and tribalism, by perverse inbred loyalty—I felt an exquisite little shudder run down my back.” The object is a Chicago Cubs cap, a symbol of baseball futility, so O’Rourke is still with team Sisyphus, but he has freed himself from his citizenship in Red Sox Nation that he inherited from his father. Though comically expressed, O’Rourke’s freedom is also wider—freedom from his compulsion to be possessed by and comforted by a community of religious believers. 

Ferris has shown he feels free to borrow from other novelists. The title of his first novel is taken from DeLillo, the second from Beckett. O’Rourke’s final epiphany is similar to the very end of Robert Coover’s novel about baseball and religion, The Universal Baseball Association, where a player on the pitching mound says the game (as well as life) is “not a trial … it’s not even a lesson. It’s just what it is.” In the last lines of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, O’Rourke is handed a cricket bat and is thrown a ball by a Nepali boy. The dentist says, “without any expectation or understanding, doubtful of any hope of success, I swung, one eye on the ball, one eye on heaven.” The last line of The Myth of Sisyphus is, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

In his first two novels, Ferris kept very close to a culturally neutral American present. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour dips into the Mideast, delves into the archaic past, and contains characters representing Catholicism, Judaism, and Hitchens-style atheism. I love novels of ideas, respect Ferris’s intellectual ambition, and enjoyed his vulgarian narrator’s commentaries on everything from celebrity couples in the tabloids to Bible readers on the subway, but there’s something slightly reductive in the novel’s theological arguments. Then We Came to the End was subtle in its social observation and wit; The Unnamed was profound in its study of self-defeating obsession. Perhaps because it’s a ribald comic novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour seems less artful and more artificial, jiggered into being by a novelist who wants to try out new chops.

If O’Rourke were Jewish, instead of a Jewish wannabe like the protagonist of Malamud’s The Assistant, Ferris’s book could be mistaken for an impudent novel by Philip Roth or Stanley Elkin, whose God in The Living End destroyed the world because He never found His audience. Not such bad writers to be mistaken for, and perhaps in this novel Ferris is, like O’Rourke, a “reclaimant” of a religious or cultural heritage, but I think Ferris shows too much original talent in his other novels to practice identity theft or identity borrowing. 

If To Rise Again at a Decent Hour were by almost any other writer of Ferris’s under-40 generation, I’d welcome it without these reservations. And I know novelists don’t have to be like “me-machines,” always adding more, always offering an advance. There is “more” to this new novel, but I believe it’s a step sideways for Ferris.