‘To Rise Again at a Decent Hour’: Dentist loses identity, meets match
In Joshua Ferris’ novel “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour,” life for an existentially alienated dentist turns weird when an unknown doppelgänger starts to impersonate him. Ferris reads Tuesday, May 27, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 27, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
“The mouth is a weird place,” writes Joshua Ferris in the first line of his third novel, “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour” (Little, Brown, 336 pp., $30). The head of Joshua Ferris is also a weird place. His first novel, “Then We Came to the End,” a Pen/Hemingway Award winner, was about advertising employees suffering from an office malaise. His second novel, “The Unnamed,” was about a lawyer suffering from an unnamed disease that caused compulsive walking. Still mining modern angst, Ferris’ new novel is about an atheist dentist suffering from an existential crisis.
Early on, Paul O’Rourke, D.D.S., tells us, “Sometimes I think I’ve wasted my life. Of course I’ve wasted my life.” He has a “thriving” dental practice on Park Avenue in New York City and, in his opinion, “There’s no better place on earth to live than New York City.” Nonetheless, something is, of course, lacking in his life.
“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,” Paul explains with his usual odd logic.
What starts as a funny but semi-routine search for meaning takes an inventive turn when an identity thief of sorts victimizes Paul. The impersonator creates a website for Paul, then a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Criminals generally steal identities to drain bank accounts, to charge products, to somehow financially profit.
Paul’s doppelgänger wants something else.
In the bogus website for Paul’s dental practice, Paul is described as “committed to the highest standard of treatment for his patients. His friendly, personable nature combined with his extensive background guarantees you a pleasant, relaxing, stress-free visit.” Then, however, it gets weird, courtesy of the doppelgänger: “Come now therefore, and with thee I establish my covenant ... if thou makest of me a God, and worship me, and send for the psaltery and the taboret to prophesy of my intentions, and make war, then ye shall be consumed.”
Paul shoots off angry cease-and-desist emails to the identity thief. After several rants, he receives a terse response. “How well do you know yourself?” Paul’s reply is profane.
Their correspondence begins to increase, as does Paul’s curiosity. The quest is on. Paul’s identity thief, it turns out, belongs to the “Ulms,” a lost tribe of Israel, nearly extinct and basically a cult. Paul, the identity thief claims, is also an Ulm. This taps into Paul’s need to belong to something, anything.
Ferris, who writes some impressively smart and funny riffs, clearly does not subscribe to Elmore Leonard’s dictum, “Leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” The final act of this big, twisty, swirling novel of semi-connected observations and ideas includes Wikipedia entries, religious history, and a material from “the Cantaveticles,” which is, maybe, a predecessor to the Book of Job.
My general reaction to this profound and pudgy novel is summed up by the quote from Job on the epigraph page, “Ha, ha.”
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist is the author of “Carnival Desires” and other novels.