The narrator of Joshua Ferris’s new novel is a rich, white, garrulous, sexist, misanthropic New Yorker with a troubled childhood, now in early middle age, wondering what the point of it all is. But Paul O’Rourke has one redeeming feature: he’s a dentist. Which means that rather than pondering the mysteries of the universe and his place in it while staring into space, he instead thinks about the meaning of life, or more often the lack of it, as he’s peering into the brightly lit mouths of his patients:
My last patient of the day was a five-year-old complaining of a loose tooth. I had the parents pegged for the type that would send their child to see a brain specialist if they heard a playmate had pulled baby’s hair … If these fretters felt the need to bring their kid in because of a loose baby tooth, I’d happily humour them. Which is what I thought I was doing when I focused the overhead inside the girl’s mouth. But then I found seven cavities … They were giving the kid a lollipop every night to help her go to sleep … They wouldn’t feed her anything without an organic label on it … but they let her lie in bed ten hours a night rotting her mouth out so that she’d stop crying and fall asleep. People have all this resentment against their parents for fucking them up, but they never realise, the minute they have a kid, that they cease being the child so fondly victimised in their hearts and start being the benighted perpetrators of unfathomable pain.
This was what I had tried to impress upon Connie. She wanted kids, I didn’t.
Connie is his ex-girlfriend and current practice manager. This isn’t especially awkward, but only because O’Rourke’s relationships with everyone, ex or not, are fantastically awkward. The other two indispensable members of his staff are Abby, the dental assistant, and Mrs Convoy, the hygienist. Mrs Convoy is a dentist’s widow and ‘devout Roman Catholic’. O’Rourke acknowledges her professional importance to him, while describing her appearance in shamelessly misogynist and gerontophobic terms, dwelling on ‘her splayed AARP breasts’ and ‘pale facial down, which stood straight up on her neck and cheeks as if trying to attract balloons’. Abby is a silent and disconcerting presence, glowering at him (or so he thinks) from behind her pink paper mask on the other side of the patient’s chair. She doesn’t speak to him at any point in the novel; when she eventually quits it takes him a minute to notice that the woman sitting across from him isn’t Abby but ‘that diminutive temp I disliked’. Connie too started working for him as a temp, but he soon found himself falling for her – ‘cunt gripped’, in his formulation – and on her second day offered her a permanent job. Six months later, ‘drinks on O’Rourke Dental put us alone at a dive bar one night, and lubricious confessions poured from us both, and after that we were a couple.’ It didn’t last long.
His shortcomings as a human being are offset only by his skill as a dentist. His work brings out the best in him as a person, too:
There were days when I considered myself singularly ill suited to my profession, which required the daily suspension of any awareness of the long game, a whistling past the grave of every open mouth … But when I got to work on those chronic unsmilers, and they came back after the sutures healed and the anchors held steady to thank me for giving them their lives back – indeed for giving them a life at all – I felt good about what I did, and damn the long game to hell.
His surgery is just off Park Avenue. ‘I borrowed a lot to refurbish the new place. To pay back that money as quickly as possible, I went against the advice of the contractor, the objections of Mrs Convoy, my own better instincts, and the general protocol of dentists everywhere and ordered a floor plan without a private office.’ The result is that awkward conversations – and the book is full of awkward conversations – have to take place in one of the surgeries (‘I wondered if Connie was listening. I was sure she was. The incomplete dental walls invited it. Mrs Convoy was probably standing right next to her’); or in the waiting-room (‘It sucks being a dentist. People are always stealing your magazines’); or in the narrow space behind Connie’s desk (‘I drew closer. In the small confines of the front desk, crowded by the swivel chairs and shoulder to shoulder with blockades of files, drawing closer really only meant turning round’).
Ferris is famously good at writing about the workplace: his first novel, Then We Came to the End, is set in an advertising agency in Chicago in the first half of 2001. ‘Layoffs were upon us.’ The first-person plural narration is sustained over four hundred pages, dropped only for the final sentence: the last word of the novel is ‘me’. It ought to become irritating very quickly, but miraculously it doesn’t: partly because the book is very funny, and partly because it’s aware of the underlying sinisterness of the conceit, which takes the mini league coach’s axiom that ‘there’s no I in team’ literally. The novel almost has the structure of a horror movie, as characters are picked off one by one (though sacked rather than murdered) and you find yourself wondering, fruitlessly, which of them will be revealed at last as the narrator. But the corporate ‘we’ can exist independently of any ‘I’; think of all the advertising slogans along the lines of ‘we’ve been baking bread for four hundred years.’
In To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, O’Rourke doesn’t feel as if he belongs to any tribe. He’s devoted to the Boston Red Sox, but his obsessive rituals make him a very lonely fan. He records every game on ‘an old-fashioned VCR’, eats the same meal before it starts, and never watches the sixth inning. Some of these superstitions he inherited from his father, who was bipolar and killed himself when O’Rourke was a child. You don’t have to look far for the origins of both his yearning and his inability to belong.
When O’Rourke is ‘cunt gripped’, he invariably finds himself falling for the woman’s entire extended family. It’s no coincidence that his college girlfriend was Catholic, or that Connie is Jewish. Their religious or ethnic identity appears to hold out the promise of belonging. Ferris dwells with sadistic glee on O’Rourke’s truly excruciating attempts to ingratiate himself with Connie’s relatives. At a wedding, her uncle Stuart tells him a ‘joke’ with the punchline: ‘And the Jew turns to the philo-Semite, jerks his thumb back at the Jew-hater, and says: “I prefer him. At least I know he’s telling the truth.”’
As it’s a novel, not a sitcom, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour seems to think it needs a plot, which is a pity, because the book goes off the rails when it moves out of the dental surgery. One day in January 2011, a patient comes in who says he doesn’t need any anaesthetic to have a tooth removed because ‘he had worked under a guru who had mastered the art of eliminating pain.’ O’Rourke gives him a shot of local anaesthetic anyway. As he’s having his tooth pulled, the man starts ‘moaning’ and ‘howling’. O’Rourke stops, asks him if he’s OK. He says he hadn’t realised he’d been making any noise because ‘I’m not actually here physically,’ and before long he asks for ‘the full gas’. On his way out, he points at Connie and says: ‘I would fuck that lady.’ So far, so wacky. But then he tells O’Rourke, with ‘sour anaesthetic breath’, that he’s ‘off to Israel’ – not because he’s Jewish but because ‘I’m an Ulm, and so are you!’
O’Rourke thinks no more about the incident (‘gas makes people say funny things’), until someone starts pretending to be him online. He hates the internet (apart from baseball forums), refuses to have any presence online (except under a pseudonym on baseball forums), and complains about patients using their smartphones (‘me-machines’) in the chair. One consequence is that his online identity is available to anyone who can be bothered to take it on. But who would bother? Who would bother to create a website for a dentist, complete with photographs and mini biographies of his staff; or a Twitter feed in his name that’s posting increasingly anti-Semitic messages; or a Facebook page that lists his religious affiliation as ‘Ulm’? O’Rourke gets his lawyer to track down whoever’s behind the website. He starts exchanging emails with his alter ego.
And so he is sucked into an all-consuming – and tedious – quest, at the expense of his dentistry (more’s the pity), to discover whether or not the Ulms are a real people with a deep history and an ancient collection of holy books, rather than an obscure 21st-century cult, and whether or not he’s one of them. There’s absolutely no tension in any of this, because we know perfectly well that it is in fact an obscure 21st-century cult invented by Joshua Ferris. (I wonder if the name has anything to do with Brecht’s poem ‘Ulm 1592’, in which a tailor jumps from a church roof with a pair of makeshift wings on his back, and falls to his death: ‘Mankind will never fly/said the Bishop to the people.’) Committed to a god whose only commandment is that they should doubt his existence, Ferris’s Ulms claim to be the descendants of the Amalekites, sworn enemies of the Israelites, defeated and slaughtered and implacably hated at various points in the Tanakh. O’Rourke is assisted in his quest by various surprising acquaintances, including a rare book dealer called Carlton B. Sookhart and a reclusive billionaire called Pete Mercer, who suggests to O’Rourke that Israel and the Ulms may have ‘arranged an irredentism pact’:
‘What is an irredentism pact?’
‘The return of land to those to whom it rightfully belongs.’
‘They have a claim to the land?’
‘As the first victims of genocide,’ he said.
I was reminded of my initial conversation with Sookhart. He’d also called the war against the Amalekites a genocide. But was it possible that a feud as old as the Bible could have some kind of current-day geopolitical consequence?
‘Is that very likely?’ I asked Mercer.
‘You can’t deny they’re there. You can only ask how. And if there’s one country likely to be sympathetic to a request for reparations for genocide …’
It’s impossible to tell who’s being naive here: Mercer? O’Rourke? Ferris? Me? I’d like to be able to say that all this is a sly commentary on the invisibility of the Palestinian experience in mainstream American culture, but I suspect that it’s merely a symptom of it. The Palestinians get three passing mentions in the novel. In the epilogue, O’Rourke pays a visit to Seir, the Ulm compound in southern Israel, supposedly the place where the last of the Amalekites were massacred by the Simeonites, according to the Book of Chronicles, and the subject of the alleged irredentism pact between Israel and the Ulms. ‘At dusk and at dawn, I watched the Bedouin on their strutting camels glide by in the distance, on their way out to the desert. Hidden away inside layers of dark clothes, moving inexorably and with pathological silence, they struck me as the loneliest people on earth.’ The Bedouin – a real-life oppressed minority – are silent, shadowy, remote, picturesque; a blank screen for O’Rourke to project his psychodrama onto; far less real to him, and to Ferris’s novel, than the fantasy Ulms.
O’Rourke ought to stick to what he’s best at: dentistry. Because he really is a very good dentist (in both senses: he’s very good at fixing teeth, and Ferris is very good at portraying a man whose job is fixing teeth). It turns out to be the reason Connie fell for him; the reason Mrs Convoy stays loyal to him, despite everything; it may or may not be the reason Ferris’s novel has been longlisted for the Booker Prize.