Inherently uncomfortable. Essentially intimate. The relationship between dentist and patient is complex, contradictory.
Most of us view that relationship from the perspective of patient, so Paul O’Rourke’s voice has the potential to be illuminating, unique, fresh.
In earlier works, Joshua Ferris has vividly inhabited the working worlds of advertising, law, and scriptwriting; he has experience wrestling with questions of prominence and invisibility, support networks and competitors, creative epiphanies and everyday drudgery.
Paul’s voice in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is remarkable; his work in dentristy saturates his worldview in a revealing and provocative manner. (Joshua Ferris must have an uncomfortable and intimate relationship with root canals and periodontal disease now, too: he captures it brilliantly.)
The struggle for meaningful work and positive relationships has a peculiar resonance for a dentist, even a successful and ambitious one. Who happily anticipates a dental appointment? In what other relationship is the topic of pain threshold an immediate and ongoing concern? How tenuous are hierarchical boundaries when workers habitually share close quarters?
It’s hard, for instance, to have faith in clients’ professed desire to protect their teeth and gums, when his advice to floss daily is routinely dismissed, evidence of the dismissal flagrantly evident in each subsequent check-up.
The sense of hopelessness, inevitable decline, rampant decay: it is pervasive, relentless.
Some characters, like Betsy Convoy, hygienist extraordinaire, turn to religion to counter this realization.
That is not Paul’s way, although he does explore a variety of possibilities (with considerable musing upon Catholicism and Judaism and the conflicts between various constructed systems of meaning).
But he cannot escape the sense that he is not participating in his own life, and his dedication to the Red Sox (habitual underdogs) and to dentistry underscore this slow decay of happiness.
“Almost impossible to track on a day-to-day basis, the passage of time is at work on people unremittingly.”
Readers are immersed in Paul’s life. Everytime he picks up his me-machine (his cell-phone), readers observe. This narrative decision has the potential to be tiresome and weighty, but readers are propelled through the paragraphs, partly because Paul’s perspective is often humourous.
As with The Unnamed, there is a dynamic and driving energy to the prose. Dialogue, emails and scenic detail contribute to the pacing, but somehow even a five-page-long paragraph about a ball game, and a page-long description of a woman drawing her hair into an elastic, manage to retain readers’ interest.
These scenes successfuly engage readers (even when specific subjects might not be of interest in another context) because readers understand that every detail is integrated into the novel’s broader canvas.
Paul’s relationship to baseball is key to understanding his worldview, and the tension in that office worker’s elastic band reflects the strain of her personal relationship with her boss and the fraught atmosphere of the office.
“Baseball is the slow creation of something beautiful. It is the almost boringly paced accumulation of what seems slight or incidental into an opera of bracing suspense. The game will threaten never to end, until suddenly it forces you to marvel at how it came to be where it is and to wonder at how far it might go.”
Every detail in this work is crafted, delicately and deliberately, all irrelevant bits excised in earlier drafts. Baseball is the antithesis of Paul’s work in dentistry. And an elastic band can represent an outsider’s perspective on a man whose narrative voice is at the heart of this novel.
There are brief glimpses of Paul through others’ eyes. A friend observes: “‘You are, Paul, you’re totally fucked up. You struggle with depression. Your idea of engaging with the world is watching a Red Sox game. And you take the job too personally.'” This does not contradict anything Paul’s own perspective has presented to readers, but he wouldn’t perhaps have selected the same words.
His self-awareness, however, is one of the most painfully appealing parts of his identity. “To Abby I was more like some creepy janitor, with his leer and mop bucket, than I was the man in charge.”
But one of the most interesting aspects of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is the consideration that identity can loosen and slip just like teeth in a mouth (and they can).
It happens more often than we think.
“People have all this resentment against their parents for fucking them up, but they never realize, the minute they have a kid, that they cease being the child so fondly victimized in their hearts and start being the benighted perpetrators of unfathomable pain.”
And these days, with me-machines in hand, there is even greater potential to create and re-create ourselves.
(Just as Joshua Ferris played with narrative voice by using the first-person plural in Then We Came to the End, he experiments with voice here at times, emphasizing the sense that Paul is living a curated life, even off-line, as hard as he tries to resist social media, his me-machine and a reliance upon emoticons.)
This capacity is both wondrous and devastating, however.
“Where did this idea of greater connection come from? I’ve never in my life felt more disconnected. It’s like how the rich get richer. The connected get more connected while the disconnected get more disconnected.”
With every Joshua Ferris novel I read, his connection with good literature is strengthened yet again. (He is one of my MRE Authors, and this latest secures his position on that list.)
What Joshua Ferris works have you read? Or, is he on your TBR list?