Tuesday, May 06, 2014

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

I was excited to receive this well before publication (it pubs today, May 6) but I have to say I'm confounded by the book. The premise: Dr. Paul O'Rourke has a successful Manhattan dental practice, is a devout Red Sox fan, as well as a devoted atheist. One day he finds he is being impersonated online though not in the way the reader expects: someone has built a viable website for his dental practice, something Paul has been unwilling to do despite the need to do so. Then he finds a Facebook page and a Twitter account in his name where he finds someone quoting Biblical scripture. Odd biblical scripture at that. His search leads him to question if the online Paul is a better man than the real one. It also leads to a strange religion, The Ulms, whose core belief is doubting G-d.

As we know, Ferris writes beautifully and the book is engrossing but I couldn't help but feel unfulfilled by it. As a character, Paul is annoying, his emotions are misplaced and I question his beliefs. He follows the Red Sox with intensity and ritual (he eats the same meal before the game, skips watching the 6th inning, etc.) but pines for the days when he could count on them to be losers. As much as he says he loves their recent championships, Paul prefers them the way they were.

Much the same can be said of his atheism. A lot of this Ferris works out in conversations between Paul and his head hygienist, Mrs. Convoy, a woman of deep belief, and some of these are very funny. There have also been two relationships Paul has had, one with a Catholic woman and one with a Jewish woman, in which he became consumed by their religious beliefs and their families. He became desperate to be part of those families which he thought he loved for their respective Catholic-ness and Jewishness but he is unable to see them for what they are. While both families are indeed observant and their religion binds them together, he mistakes their loving family ways for deep belief.

Then you have the whole thing with this secret religion, The Ulms. Turns out the guy who creates Paul's online persona is beseeching him to come to Israel where the Ulms have a community and where Paul can learn of his true lineage and be accepted. The reader would think this would be the perfect fit for a doubtful atheist but Paul can't quite buy in to this either.

Perhaps I've missed the point Ferris is trying to make. Is it that Paul can't have it both ways or that despite what Paul thinks he believes in, he doesn't really believe in much of anything? I can't say and that is why, even halfway through the novel, I felt, while it was highly readable, like Paul, it was working hard to get nowhere.

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