Joshua Ferris is a more curious writer than he initially seemed to be. His 2007 debut, “Then We Came to the End” was the tidiest good novel to emerge in a decade. It was slick, knowing, and deeply funny — like a literary version of “The Office.”
Since then, Ferris has rebelled against his strengths as if distrustful of what comes easy. His 2010 follow-up, “The Unnamed,” was discursive where its predecessor was more sure-footed. It featured a man who suffered from a kind of somnambulism. He literally walked out on his life.
And now Ferris brings us “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour,” an engrossing and hilariously bleak novel about a dentist being shook out of his comfortable atheism. “The mouth is a weird place,” the narrator Paul O’Rourke announces in the first line, then describes how he has spent a career camped out there, amid rotting molars and infected gums.
“A dentist is only half the doctor he claims to be,” Paul quips. “That he’s also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself.”
Paul’s time in the mouths of New Yorkers has made him rich, Park Avenue practice rich. His hobbies consist of golf and the Red Sox. Paul’s biggest problem: a bit of middle-age insomnia.
Sentence by sentence, Ferris starts chipping away at Paul’s respectable veneer. This man is not just a grump, as he first appears. There’s a rot at the core of him he can barely disguise. He looks at his assistant moisturizing her hands, and thinks: “Connie had good hands. Old-people hands are the only hands that seem to the naked eye in urgent need of a new coat of moisturizer. They are liver spotted, bony, thin skinned, tendony, and dying.”
Not surprisingly Paul has struggled a bit with women, including the assistant, with whom he has a disastrous affair. He falls in love quickly and then loses his ability to censor his thoughts. He has stalkerish tendencies. After one girlfriend dumps him he breaks into her house and pleasures himself in her closet.
Paranoid cranks can be great narrators. They filibuster against society’s crazed order. The best of them are agents of entropy, like the hero of Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger,” who starves himself half out of boredom.
Paul is nearly in that category of antihero. Beneath every habit he finds a person fighting a losing battle with death. Religion mystifies him: He simply gets lost in the Bible’s begats. He loathes the Internet. The way his patients jump on their smartphones, or me-machines (as he calls them), while he is performing a procedure makes him furious.
It is ironic then that the troubles that occupy Paul across this novel emerge from these two spheres. One day, a website for his practice appears online without his consent or will. At first his bio is accurate. Then long Biblical quotes appear. And later it claims that Paul is a member of a small, nearly extinct tribe of people from the Middle East.
The takeover of Paul’s identity online becomes the novel’s strength. Ferris neatly plots the growth of Paul’s Web presence— as a commentator on baseball blogs, a frequent Twitter user — against a series of conversations he has over e-mail with his impostor. “The more intense the displacement,” the fake Paul e-mails him, “the more difficult you become.”
This splintering of the self hasn’t been performed in fiction so neatly since Philip Roth’s “Operation Shylock.” As Paul hires lawyers and investigators and becomes obsessed with following his pursuer, he begins to have a series of flashbacks about life after his father committed suicide decades ago.
“Being alone was the loneliest and scariest thing,” he remembers of trying to sleep in the aftermath. “But nothing I could do would stop time or keep the night from growing larger and darker. From our building, sleep would spread like a sickness to the other people on the block . . . I would be the only person awake in the world.”
What we are and what makes us are two different things, “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour” reveals. Perhaps Paul is secretly Jewish (perhaps he is secretly many things), but does this actually matter? The event that made him — his father’s death — is invisible to everyone. He doesn’t speak of it. Meanwhile his virtual doppelganger earns him an online following.
In “Then We Came to the End” and “The Unnamed” Ferris seemed, briefly, like a writer concerned with the pointlessness of working and married life. Now he has given us a hero with a far more ambitious kind of malaise. It is not just religion; it is everything that troubles Paul. To him, it is all a sham.
Glib nihilism is easy: One only has to go to a shopping mall to acquire a case of it. Nihilism that emerges from loss, however, takes hard work. It demands upkeep. It’s like oral hygiene. Atheism won’t protect Paul from death, but living with doubt, he finds, can be terrifying.John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.”