In On the Party
One man's struggles with tooth cavities and anomie
By Low Ying Ping
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour: A Novel
Joshua Ferris's To Rise Again at a Decent Hour: A Novel, nominated for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, is one of the finest books that I've read this year.
To simply say that the novel is hilarious is to credit it at its most superficial level. It is, but there is also an undercurrent of heaviness to the comedy. The voice of the narrator is at once farcical, ironical, pensive, inspired, and altogether persuasive of his helplessness in the face of a bafflingly aloof yet intrusive modern world.
Ferris's protagonist, Paul O'Rourke, is a dentist with a successful practice. Not just a run-of-the-mill dentist, but one of the best, as his head dental hygienist Mrs Convoy tells him in an unexpectedly touching and humbling scene towards the end of the novel. Yet, despite his professional success, he feels an utter disconnect to the people around him. Their religious beliefs and devotional practices seem unfathomable (all that highlighting of the Bible, "In multiple colours! With notes in a friar's hand!"), and their interests and routines (like his ex-girlfriend Connie's hand-moisturising and sorting of pens in a mug) seem to him like "minor pathologies". But underlying his incredulity at all these is his equally intense desire to be part of those communities. How he wishes he could moisturise with such a passion! If not, then how he wishes he could persuade Connie to join him in his certainty that moisturising is futile! (He nearly falls for the compulsion to get her to come see an ancient patient of his with irredeemably wrinkled hands as evidence of what we would all become in the end, obsessive moisturising notwithstanding.)
Indeed, his atheistic outlook towards religion extends to all else in life. Overwhelmed by his conscious knowledge that although "everything was always something", "something [...] could never be everything", he finds that he is unable to believe in anything for any extended period of time. His hobbies never last and his friendships lapse. His relationships fail not least because despite his eagerness to embrace the families of his girlfriends, he cannot relate to them at an emotional level. He desperately dreads being "left out" (as he calls it), so much so that he is troubled when he sees a newspaper headline about a celebrity couple and cannot recall who they are, this being evidence of his being excluded from yet another group. Yet, he is undeniably "out", for in his cynicism, pessimism and failure to accept imperfection as a tolerable condition of life, his disconnect with the world is complete. Impossibly jaded at the ripe old age of forty, even the thought that he would never be able to relive the magical experience of buying the CD of a favourite song for the first time fills him with anguish and despair.
Yet, despite his negativity, Paul surprises with his level of devotion towards his patients. Unable to muster up the energy to greet his staff properly every morning, he is nonetheless effusively cheery towards his patients. He claims that this is because he is "the worst of the hypocrites, of all the hypocrites, the cruel and phoney hypocrites, [he is] the very worst", but perhaps he is less than generous in assessing himself, for we see that he is truly passionate about his calling. When a patient refuses to allow him to fill a cavity, he is filled with amazement and incredulity, unable to accept such an unaccountably self-destructive decision. And despite his nihilism towards all life's purposes, including the futility of flossing one's teeth since everyone dies in the end, he cannot see a patient in pain from rotted teeth and infected gums but feel the fervour rise in him again:
His commitment to his patients could perhaps have had the potential to fulfil for him the meaning of life he so yearns for. Indeed, in his sporadic moments of hopefulness, he tells himself: "Some days I really held a grudge. I'd tell myself to get over myself. What could be better than a thriving practice and a management structure with me on top?" But inevitably, he falls back into depression with the realisation that a successful dental practice is, like all else, still ultimately something that cannot be everything.
His self-contained world of utter isolation is disrupted when he is not only told that he belongs to an ancient religious order called the Ulms, but is patiently and relentlessly courted by the leader of the order despite his initially vocal and vehement rejection of the outreach. This is a reversal of his usual position of going to extreme lengths to include himself in various communities, and is something that in his needy state he is unable to resist for long. The Ulms is a select sect, for its members bear an exclusive gene passed down through a sacred line originating in biblical times, and Paul cannot help but be swept up in the allure of being able to "take refuge in the intimacy of marginalization". Finally, he is no longer "left out", for, whatever his professions of disbelief typical of a postmodern man, his search for meaning still leads him to be emotionally drawn towards the grand narratives that his logical mind seeks to reject.
In many ways, Paul is not a likeable man. He is too self-absorbed, only partially self-aware, and a social misfit. Yet, from afar, he is irresistibly loveable in the manner of all beautifully-drawn flawed humanity. In the end, all the reader wants for this incurable insomniac is all he has really wanted for himself: to be able to rise again at a decent hour, and see that sliver of hope in life again.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 1 Jan 2015