The protagonist of Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is Paul O’Rourke, a New York dentist, with a love for the Boston Red Sox. He is a man who, through his relationships, has been on a quest to ‘fit in’ , to feel part of something bigger: a man who, despite his atheism, is drawn to sense of identity and belonging that organised religion seems to bring.
At the start of the book he is clearly a man that whilst living a comfortable life, is not fulfilled. His work is successful but his relationships are floundering. In the words of one of the characters “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.”
Then someone begins to impersonate Paul online. First a website for his dental practice appears – something he has avowed against ever having. Whist that is annoying it is nothing compared to the Facebook, Twitter and online forum accounts in his name that follow. All are peppered with quotes and musings on an obscure religious sect – many of which seem to make Paul sound like an anti-Semite (something that, with an ex Jewish girlfriend he feels horrified by). His initial outrage at this violation of his privacy and annoyance that people are believing that this is the ‘real’ him online is soon replaced by a gnawing curiosity about it all, and about why he has been ‘chosen’ for this attention.
Ferris’ third book is an interesting and funny read. It’s party about identity theft but also about finding one’s own identity and questioning both the perception of who we are and who we actually are. It manages to be both funny and serious about religion, for example “anti-Catholicism, which, in the context of the history of anti-Semitism, was a luncheon on a riverboat.”, but also addresses brilliant that dichotomy between wanting to ‘belong’ and feel part of something, having and identifying with a wider sense of identity, whilst at the same time still questioning the need for any kind of supreme being to justify it.
It also touches on an idea that has always rang true to me, as an agnostic, about organised religions and the reasons why even with one monotheistic belief you can get conflict over ‘whose version of the belief in the same ‘god’ is the ‘true’ one; the idea that some Christians, Jews, or Muslims who argue they are who they are because they are devoted to God, are actually who they are because they are devoted to themselves.
Paul is a great character and his conflicted personality provides much, Woody Allen style humour, “You think I alienate myself from society? Of course I alienate myself from society. It’s the only way I know of not being constantly reminded of all the ways I’m alienated from society.” And just as well. Whilst the religious ‘plot’ provides a way for us to explore this alienation and his desire to belong it also occasionally gets bogged down in it.
I’m slightly surprised the book made the shortlist. It’s an enjoyable read, but not, for me, an award winner.