The existential crisis for Paul O’Rourke, Joshua Ferris’s forty-something narrator, begins when he discovers that hackers have created a website for his successful Manhattan dental practice. Unable to locate who is behind this web crime, Paul — an atheist and technophobe — soon learns that he has been unwittingly added to various social media networks and that his counterfeit online personae zealously promote the values of an ancient religious sect. Add this to Paul’s already high level of displacement and alienation — he’s a Red Sox fan living in New York — and we find Paul entrenched in a comic soul-searching for his true identity — spiritual, digital, and familial.
This ambitious and enchanting novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014, also follows the narrator in his emotional attachment to ex-girlfriend Connie, who happens to be his receptionist. Ferris captures the world of dentistry with charm and subtle wit, with breathtakingly acerbic and rich passages about practicing medicine and dealing with office politics. Inventively told and alternating between investigations of web crimes, discussions of ancient religion, shining moments of tender introspection, and cynical breakdowns of contemporary life, Ferris’s writing soars here. He achieves what most novelists aspire to achieve: fully capturing the feeling of everyday life with sensitivity, philosophical depth, and humor.
Paul himself is a wonderfully odd character, scrutinizing the world around him with as much intensity as a Talmudic scholar. Among his most memorable targets are: the satisfying feeling of shopping malls, flirtatious emoticons, the use of hand lotion, baseball fandom, and the nature of authentic experience. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour even takes on a vocabulary of its own, with smart phones as “me-machines” and the fictional tabloid couple “Harper and Bryn” (whom Paul follows by reading the magazines in his office waiting room) standing in for Paul’s search for belonging. In one hilarious scene, Paul looks to Harper and Brynn as role models as he attempts to reconcile with Connie. Reminiscent of Chabon and Auster, Ferris excels in this part-detective novel, part-zeitgeist capture, and utterly memorable story.