Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour tells the story of Paul O’Rourke, a restless and anxious dentist in love with life but with no earthly idea of how to live it. A tangle of contradictions, he’s a Luddite with an iPhone (‘me-machine’) habit, and a God-fearing atheist whose troubled past and uncertain future collide when his identity is stolen and a website, Facebook page and Twitter account start spouting spurious religious messages in his name. Despondency turns to horror when he begins to suspect that this abstract avatar may be more self-aware and substantial than the man on which it is based. So why did Ferris choose a dentist for this existential test of identity and character?
“I guess I have a love-hate relationship with dentists,” he offers, “but the hate part is theroretical; I hate it because I’m forced to go, I have no choice in how my mouth behaves, whether or not it’s healthy. But generally speaking I’ve had really good experiences with dentists, even if I don’t necessarily appreciate them while they’re cleaning my teeth. The reason I chose a dentist was two-fold; one, I feel that a character becomes honest the minute that I’ve paired him with a profession – before that happens they’re kind of floating in an amorphous representative state that doesn’t actually have any true applicability to life, and once I land on what they do for a living they become real people to me. Dentistry is about as real as it gets in many respects, because they have so many tools, and like doctors they have to have a lot of schooling. They know a lot, they’re very smart – or knowledgeable, in any event – and a dentist has a lot of things to do with his hands on a daily basis. So I liked the idea of giving a character a lot of activities that I have to learn about and incorporate into the fiction. So that’s one, and then the second one, on a thematic level, there was so much despair to be found in the mouth. Martin Amis says something like ‘our mouths are where we live’, and just about everything that we introduce into our bodies comes through the mouth, it’s a very vulnerable place, so I thought that it would tie nicely into the fact that he’s despairing for various reasons. Also, just tangentially, dentists in America I think have the highest rate of suicide of any profession.”
O’Rourke traces his fascination with dentistry back to his childhood reading of William Steig’s Doctor De Soto, the story of a mouse dentist who has to treat a fox with toothache and avoid being eaten in the process. This small detail neatly captures the character’s emotional immaturity and deep-seated fears – but this wasn’t a book Ferris himself grew up with.
“As a kid the Steig book I remember the most is Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Doctor De Soto I missed out on. I did this a lot. I’m discovering now that I read books to my kid that I would read one book by a great writer, but it would often be their lesser book. Even though I don’t think Sylvester and the Magic Pebble actually fits this description, because it’s a great and celebrated book, but in any event I didn’t read Doctor De Soto, I only read it as an adult to my son.”
So which books or writers does he suppose O’Rourke would read today? Is this a game he likes to play to get inside the heads of his characters?
“No it’s not,” he deadpans, “but I can entertain it. I think he would read a lot of dental journals, he would read the considerable output of indie press on the Boston Red Sox – there’s a lot of it, covering every esoteric Boston fact. Like there’s a book called Game Six about one game (which actually I think is a major press book). So he would read that, and then he would very likely skip the fiction and probably read the Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris triumvirate.”
O’Rourke defines himself as Red Sox fan. When his team, perennial non-achievers, wins the World Series on the back of huge investment and a sudden influx of star players, he feels the loss of “the scrappy self-preservation that was our defining characteristic in the face of humiliation and defeat”; “We were underdogs,” he laments, “we knew only heartbreak and loss: how could I be expected to shift, practically overnight, to an attitude of entitlement?”
Whilst he displays a sound understanding of the mindset of the committed fan, Ferris is personally wary of devoting too much time following a sports team: “I probably have to side with the Cubs because I come from Chicago, so there’s a certain hometown loyalty, but I can’t say that I invest in them at all. That’s both congenital and practical.”
The Cubs typify unflagging failure more than most, and it’s telling that O’Rourke eventually switches his allegiance to the Chicago team as part of his movement towards happiness and enlightenment.
Throughout the novel, office relations between O’Rourke and surly dental assistant Abby, receptionist and ex-girlfriend Connie, and god-fearing hygienist Betsy show different aspects of his chronic incapacity to form relationships (the funniest exchanges being with Betsy, with whom he has daily futile arguments about religion). I ask whether O’Rourke might have benefited from having a male colleague at hand, or if human relationships of every stripe are simply beyond him at this point in the story?
“He sort of has a male colleague in his friend McGowan,” Ferris observes, “who’s also a dentist, a man who goes to the gym without thinking about it, and doesn’t think too hard about his patients or the neglect of their teeth. This is somebody I think that he would greatly admire but also not understand. And in not understanding that person, he wouldn’t want to hang out with him for very long because he seems to get the key to life. The key to life eludes O’Rourke so thoroughly that those people just make him want and envy too much.”
The book starts out as comic novel about O’Rourke and his social inadequacies, but then steps quite deeply into Umberto Eco/Dan Brown territory of religious-sect conspiracy. Did Ferris set out to satirise those types of thrillers?
“No, I can’t say that I think in those sophisticated ways. I’d like to be able to, but it wasn’t to take the piss out of another book, that wasn’t the objective. I suppose if some of your effort is directed in that way, it’s playful. Nabokov did this a lot, he would appraise contemporary fiction of his time, and he had the prowess that he could just go after it, attack it, leave it for dead and move on. But I don’t have that kind of agenda. In fact I really liked the Dan Brown book, I found it very gripping, I couldn’t put it down. I didn’t think it was a great literary achievement, but I didn’t think it was anything worthy of attacking. Though I did recognise that there was a spiritual lack in his pages, and I suppose to some extent that’s partly what my character is responding to in despairing for his own.”
O’Rourke’s tentative path to religious awakening and self-knowledge begins when the rogue website drpaulcorourke.com starts posting dubious scriptures and some alarming bigotry in the bemused dentist’s name – along with the repeated claim that his ancestors were from an obscure branch of an Amalekite sect called the Ulm, and he is therefore part of the true Chosen race. Putting ideas of religious supremacism aside for the moment, I ask if Ferris has ever been a victim of identity theft.
“No – is the short answer. The long answer is of course that once you do abdicate the desire to be on Facebook or Twitter, or online in general, you also abdicate any control you have over your identity there, so insofar as I’m not a constant presence there, other people are kind of forming my identity for me, I suppose those are the critics and readers, and anyone interested in spending a little time weighing in on my work. So I think I’m familiar, and I suspect everyone’s familiar, with how your online identity can be shaped by those with the greatest interest in doing so.”
And we lose our identity further the more we allow ourselves to be influenced by advertising and marketing, and to be tempted into possessing all the latest devices.
“Yeah, I’m increasingly dismayed by the blurring lines between art and advertising, and between personality and brand. There’s a sense in which personality’s being completely erased by the brand, or by the tendency for people to construct themselves as brands. A brand is not a personality, a brand is an extremely curated and manipulated impression of personality. Personality’s messy and human and not easily controlled late at night, you know, when the bigger questions emerge. I suppose it’s pretty easy to understand, but it’s nevertheless dismaying.”
Another character in the book, billionaire trader Pete Mercer, says of capitalism and the markets: “People are ignorant of the magnitude of unfair play. To whatever degree they are not ignorant, they are resigned.”
“I think most people are,” Ferris agrees. “If they’re not overwhelmed, then I think they’re suspicious that it’s crooked. There’s a way in which you can pretty much glance just briefly at the market and conclude that it’s corrupt, or at least so thoroughly rigged by technological advantage for some players that it’s not really worth engaging in, you’re certainly never going to get a handle on it. That’s probably where the resignation comes from, that sense of there will be no mastery for the common man.”
The Amalekites, whose history O’Rourke is inexorably drawn into, are recorded in the Old Testament, but what, I ask, is the basis of the Ulm sect and their ‘Cantaveticles’? (And what, incidentally, is the etymology of ‘Cantaveticles’?)
“I don’t know that there is one,” he smiles, “I made it up. There’s a word ‘canticles’ (a diminutive of the Latin canticum, meaning song – as in Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz). I landed on ‘cantaveticles’ in 2003, which is why I’m having a hard time remembering exactly how. It was in a very early and now non-existent iteration of this book. So I don’t really remember what it was, it just sounds real biblical and so I ran with it. I did this a lot with various things, you know, the minutiae that doesn’t make it into the book that had the verisimilitude of something stretching back through time.”
And boy did he run with it, creating a whole series of scriptures, then plundering from them to see what would fit his purposes.
“I wrote a good deal more than makes it into the book,” he recalls. “In order to convey its reality, at least to myself, there needed to be a considerable amount of creation that undergirded it. It certainly lent me a lot of confidence. The real pain in the ass was sifting through all this creation for what was novelistic, and then also recognising – or sort of forgiving myself for having wasted so much time in actually creating something that could have been construed by some nut as a true religion.”
Once you abdicate the desire to be on Facebook or Twitter, or online in general, you also abdicate any control you have over your identity.”
Prior to our conversation I failed to find anything directly from Ferris on Facebook or Twitter. So does he avoid social media altogether, or was I looking in the wrong places?
“You looked in all the right places, for the wrong guy. I think when it first came out I was probably underwhelmed, but it’s really not a matter of judgement, it’s a matter of where I had to spend my time. It takes a long time and a lot of energy and concentration to write a novel, and I could see myself squandering an enormous amount of life online, so I sort of avoid it the way that I try to avoid bars. I’m not always successful, of course, because like the drinking I do in bars, I sometime steal onto my mother’s Facebook page to find out what’s going on with the uncles.”
O’Rourke has an obsession with the ageing process and the slow march of death; Ferris reaches 40 this year. Any connection?
“Yeah, sure. I suppose that it’s a fairly easy thing to have in common with him because we’re all subject to it, so his preoccupation might be my own.”
And how far back has Ferris traced his own family roots? Does he feel at all defined by his forebears?
“I didn’t do it at all. I know people who have, an uncle of mine has done it, my stepfather has done it on behalf of my mom, but I didn’t look into it. What I was more interested in was the preoccupation of those men to do such a thing. I can only tell you basically my grandparents, that’s about as far as I can go back, and they’re all from one little place. Clearly there was a lot that went on before that, but I don’t know what it would be, and really don’t have the interest, I don’t have that primal need that some people do, but it’s a big deal in America. There’s a sense that we’re all kind of mutts, and where we come from originally is the thing we’d like to discover; how many forebears come from Britain, how many come from Ireland or Italy and so on. And there’s that illusion to ancestry in general, that somehow it will inform you of some core notion of self. That’s a very chimerical idea.”
At the end of the book, O’Rourke finds himself in Nepal, where he’s decided to apply his dental skills as an overseas aid worker. By his side (in a slow reveal) we find the formidable Betsy. How quickly did Ferris realise Betsy would be there by O’Rourke’s side?
“Well, of course Betsy would be the only reason he’d be there. He’s a different man at the end of the book than he is at the beginning, and so Betsy probably had to convince him a little less than she might have done to come with her. And he kind of alludes to the fact she’s dragged him along, but he’s there I think with a bigger heart than he had at the beginning, and I really wanted to try to convey that, that was really important to me. But I still don’t believe that he’s so changed that he would make it without Betsy.”
While he was in a relationship with Connie, O’Rourke refused to adopt an adorable puppy on the grounds that one day it would die. Does he achieve the emotional maturity required to take on a dog by the end?
“I think the question itself is sufficient evidence that something has changed,” Ferris grins. “I can’t answer it, but I appreciate the question.”
And what has he been writing since he finished this book?
“I’m kind of toggling between ideas. I don’t quite know yet because it’s very new. I’m still figuring out where I want to spend the bulk of my time, and I’m playing with a couple of short stories. At some point I’ll get very heavily back into a novel, but I don’t know yet what it will be.”
I note that there hasn’t yet been a story collection. Might that be something that appears before the next novel?
“Yeah, I’m sure that Viking is ready to cash in! Hopefully there will be. I don’t know if it will be before the new novel, but I need to write a couple more and then I’ll feel good about a collection.”
Finally, I ask whether O’Rourke’s description of smartphones as ‘me-machines’ has started to catch on.
“My wife uses it, so it’s used inside the house,” he admits, “but I haven’t heard it our there on the pavement.”
Probably due to all the time he spends avoiding bars and the internet in favour of getting down to work; surely it’s an expression whose time has come.
Joshua Ferris was born in Illinois and lives in upstate New York. His first novel, Then We Came to the End (2007), was nominated for the National Book Award, won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. As his second, The Unnamed, was published in 2010, he was nominated one of The New Yorker’s ‘20 Under 40’ writers to watch. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House and Best American Short Stories. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour and the two earlier novels are published in the UK by Viking/Penguin and in the US by Little, Brown. Read more.
Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.
Listen to Paul O’Rourke coming face to face with a prematurely ageing patient: