Atheist Dentist Searches for Meaning - A review of Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

WRITTEN BY LIZ EMERY, GUEST WRITER FOR AAI NEWS TEAM

In The New Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God, British historian Peter Watson explains how atheist thinkers and artists have sought meaning and purpose in life ever since Nietzsche declared that “god is dead.” Joshua Ferris, in his latest novel, depicts an atheist dentist who struggles with the same question. As Liz Emery observes in the following review, we can all relate to this very funny, very real, story.

 In To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Paul is a terminally caustic dentist in New York who fills cavities, watches baseball games, and pushes people’s buttons. The majority of the story’s plot, dialogue, and Paul’s constant self-musings occur within the hours spent at his understaffed dental practice, which, in an effort to save money during construction, lacks a private office and any resultant confidentiality said office might provide. Through conversation with his head hygienist, Mrs. Convoy; his office assistant and ex-lover, Connie; and O’Rourke’s own hilariously cynical, honest (and downright egocentric) inner monologue; we come to see who Paul Conrad O’Rourke, DMD, is—and, by his own admittance, he isn’t much at all. 

On the surface, Paul actively spurns any and all religious affiliation. In truth, however, he is intensely superstitious and, by his own admittance, creepily leeches onto the uber-conservative religious families of his girlfriends in an attempt to feel included as a part of some greater whole. Because Paul’s father committed suicide, and because Paul is who he is, Paul is constantly sorting out a litany of psychological issues, including loneliness, lack of belonging, and the suffocating feeling that when he wakes in the middle of the night, as he usually does, everybody else in the world is asleep. When he arrives at his office, he can’t bring himself to say hello to his staff, despite asserting to the reader that he wants nothing more than to offer a cheery good morning to all. Instead, he says, “Where’s the day’s schedule?” to Connie, or “You’re alone today,” to Mrs. Convoy. He peers into the mouths of his patients, pleads with them to floss, and then goes out to have a cigarette. When he returns from smoking, his conversations with Mrs. Convoy, who is uncannily aware of his every movement, are typically structured around the strange but effortlessly executed dialogue tactic of, “She said ‘x’, I replied. She said, ‘x’, I replied.” The two spar endlessly over Mrs. Convoy’s obnoxiously sincere Christianity and Paul’s certainty in the pointlessness of maintaining proper dental hygiene.

When Paul goes home, he ruminates over how there is nothing New York City offers besides drinking and eating endlessly (no wonder America is a nation of “fat alcoholics and the nurses and therapists who tend to them”), and so he spurns professional gatherings, meetings with friends, and does nothing but watch the Red Sox—religiously, you might say—on Thursday nights and then regrets not going out afterwards. When he awakes in the wee hours after the game is over, he checks his email, despairs over the lonely darkness of the early morning, and then watches the previous night’s game until dawn breaks.

Paul C. O’Rourke is single. On his knees, he weeps at the thought of a baby or puppy and all the tragedies he could endure at the expense of loving one. Although he is obsessed with his girlfriend’s family, he severely lacks good conversational taste and does things like telling tasteless Anti-Semitic jokes when his girlfriend’s family is sitting Shiva. He has no friends because he appears to be fundamentally unlikeable and spurns what pseudo-friends he does have. His family is dead (well, his mother is in a mental hospital); he has no children or pets, and for someone who self-admittedly “only wanted to be smothered in the embrace of an inclusive and coercive singular “we”, he is remarkably alone.

Then comes the website. Someone pretending to be Paul, with intimate knowledge of his life, has put up a website for Paul’s dental office. The impersonator begins commenting on various sports threads as Paul, and perhaps most disconcertingly, includes quotes and links on the website, the sports threads, and now Twitter, which reference an entirely unheard-of group of ancient people called the Ulms (don’t waste your time Googling—there’s no such thing). As Paul comes to find out via sparse email interactions with the perpetrator, the Ulms are a displaced, abused society comparable to the Jews—except their hallmark of persecution is doubt in God, instead of faith— and Paul is apparently one of them. Now he’s being invited to search out his Ulmish destiny.

Of course, in the meantime, the anti-Semitic comments Paul’s impersonator posts on the dental practice’s website and Twitter account are angering a lot of people, including Connie and her Jewish family. As Paul tries to placate Connie’s family and discover who his doppelganger is, and as Paul tries to determine whether the Ulms are a legitimately disenfranchised part of biblical history, he is forced reluctantly on a journey of self-discovery, where he ultimately has to confront the fact that despite eschewing all religious convictions, he and others like him still have an deep-seeded human need to connect.

And what better way to illustrate the fallibility of human need, desire, and design than from a dentist’s chair? Teeth that crumble. Infection galore. When Paul visits a settlement outside of New Delhi on a charity mission to fix the teeth of impoverished children, he spends a whole page describing God’s glorious design: “Pulp necrosis, tongue lesions, goiterlike presentations… trench mouth, incurable caries… Those tender infant mouths never stood a chance…. Mrs. Convoy said we were there to do God’s work. As for God’s work, I said, ‘Seems like we’re undoing it.’” Paul doesn’t soapbox, simply describes the mess he sees, and denies any possibility that it points to a higher power. And you get it, you get Paul—you understand his cynicism, his constant irritation at Mrs. Convoy’s benign insistence on God’s good dental intentions. (“What exactly have you been doing?” I’d tell her, and she’d say, “Why do you feel the need to lie to me?” I’d tell her, and she’d say, “Scrutiny does not kill people. Smoking kills people. What kind of example do you think you’re setting for your patients by sneaking off to smoke cigarettes?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “They do not need a reminder of ‘the futility of it all’ from their dental professional.”) Without preaching or pontificating, Ferris makes the human mouth the perfect breeding ground for one bitter and sullen atheist’s festering.

In an easy-reading, non-politicized way, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour addresses some of the most common questions asked of atheists: Who do you belong to? What are your morals? Can you love someone of another faith? Does faith in doubt constitute some sort of transcendental belief, regardless of the disbeliever’s protests? Through Paul, Ferris approaches potential answers to these questions in a genuine, believable conversation without ever approaching didacticism. Perhaps because he asks the questions from such an honest perspective, or perhaps because Paul is such a whip-funny asscrack, the character’s take on the eventual decay of any ultimate purpose in life, via the hilarious metaphors of gum disease and cavity rot, is totally convincing. Even if Paul doesn’t find answers to all of his questions, the gut-wrenching desire with which he searches mirrors that fundamental human yearning for a greater understanding.

If nothing else, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a laugh-out-loud funny reminder that, regardless of belief or nonbelief, the only ultimate meaning to eating, drinking, fornicating, flossing, or watching a baseball game is the meaning we give it. At the very end of the novel when on another charity trip to New Delhi, a brief but incredibly poignant moment occurs: Paul runs into a child with a smile so beautiful he calls it “God-given”—and then later realizes it was work he performed on the child himself, years before. Perhaps that in itself answers all of Paul’s questions for us.

 

Our guest writer Liz Emery is a writer for the news team of the Richard Dawkins Foundation.