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Joshua Ferris’ latest novel gets to the heart of its humorous dentist

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Tod Goldberg
Four stars

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour By Joshua Ferris, $26.

It’s hard to really like your dentist: He or she knows your lies, has no problem digging into your soft tissue and frequently doesn’t let you get a word in edgewise. It’s a truth Joshua Ferris captures perfectly in the darkly comic and surprisingly touching To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. His protagonist, Paul O’Rourke, is a dentist who at first glance might charitably be called a misanthrope, whose life begins to spiral when his online identity is hijacked. Or, to be more precise, his lack of online identity, since Paul has studiously avoided the normal accoutrements of public life—no Facebook profile, no Twitter account, not even a website for his successful dentistry practice—and yet is still the kind of person who Googles himself to make sure no one else is speaking about him, either. Here Ferris creates a man at once fighting with the onset of our digital modernity and utterly enslaved by the culture around him, everyone addicted to their “me-machines.”

“I was sick to death of having as my dinner companions Wikipedia, About.com, IMDb, the Zagat guide, Time Out New York, a hundred Tumblrs, the New York Times, and People magazine,” Paul says early in the novel. “Was there not some strange forgotten pleasure in reveling in our ignorance? Couldn’t we just be wrong?” It can be taken as a curmudgeon’s response, of course, but it speaks to the conundrum that ensnares Paul once his own online life falls from his hands. When his faceless Internet antagonist shows up, using Paul’s name to spout odd religious rhetoric and poorly thought out takes on the Red Sox (which Paul finds initially the most egregious issue), the existential yearning that hallmarked Ferris’ first two novels, Then We Came to the End and The Unnamed, returns in full blush: Who are we if we are not even ourselves?

That may not sound like the grist for grand comedy, but Ferris is a deft satirist, not a joke teller, so the humor comes from the absurdity of Paul’s journey, the revelation that the widening gyre here spins him toward becoming a better man. The more Paul digs into the person who stole his life, the more he recognizes how little of that life he’s been using and the faith that he lacks. Paul’s resulting transformation may remind readers of a latter-day Binx Bolling, and that would be an apt comparison, as, like The Moviegoer, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a beguiling novel, one that keeps you laughing right up until the moment you realize you’ve been reading a tragedy all along.

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