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'To Rise Again at a Decent Hour' tackles the mystery of existence

A misanthropic dentist – and all-around skeptic – is pulled into the mystery of an ancient tribe of doubters.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris, Little, Brown and Company, 352 pp.

"Is despair an excellence or a defect?" asks Kierkegaard in "The Sickness unto Death." "Purely dialectically, it is both." To the despairing man or woman, in other words, is granted a variety of advanced and even aristocratic perceptions and insights – but it feels like hell. Like death. Like being attacked by invisible singing goblins with syringes for fingertips. Not even golf can assuage the pain: "The last ball I putted circled the hole, and the rimming impression it made as it dropped was that of my small life draining into the abyss."

Paul O'Rourke, narrator of Joshua Ferris's new novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, is a successful dentist, a failed golfer, a fractured romantic, a Red Sox fan, and a twenty-first-century technocratic human in despair. "Everything was always something, but something – and here was the rub – could never be everything." The glut of stimuli, the radical insufficiency: well, we can all relate to that. Paul's despair is manifest in his work, in the bleeding caverns and ruined bonescapes that are the very texture of his practice, and it is manifest in his allegiance to the Red Sox – which has been made more complicated and difficult by the fact that they are no longer incurable losers. Why doesn't everybody floss? Flossing prevents gum disease; it can prolong your life by up to seven years.

Why did the Red Sox have to go and win the World Series, and then win it again, and again? Hope can be a terrible burden sometimes.

And then: something happens. Paul, a preening digiphobe – he disdains gadgets and "me-machines" and is regularly reproached by his head hygienist, Betsy Convoy, for having "no online presence" – discovers that someone has set up not only a Facebook page for "Paul C. O'Rourke" but a rather attractive website for his dental practice. The layout is nice, the information is good, everyone in the office is happy with it, even though no one knows who's responsible. Paul is horrified: "Who would do such a thing? It's disturbing. We should all be very disturbed." He sends a series of increasingly heated emails to "Seir Design," the name that appears at the bottom of the website. "You're ruining my life," he complains, to which the response comes: What do you really know of your life? This tips Paul over the edge. "I will not be contained," he types frantically, "by my news feeds and online purchases, by your complicated algorithms for simplifying a man. Watch me break out of the hole you put me in. I am a man, not an animal in a cafe." Then he curses his autocorrect function and types again: "I meant 'cage.' "

The Animal in the Cafe.... That might have made a pretty good alternative title, actually, for "To Rise Again at a Decent Hour." It captures the existential, anthropological flavor of the book, which is essentially a study in old-school late-capitalist alienation. Joshua Ferris's first novel was the triumphant "Then We Came to the End," an office novel narrated by a group mind: "We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise." That book's most vital character was Tom Mota, a libertarian and incontinent masturbator brandishing a volume of Emerson's complete poems and essays. ("The problem with reading this guy is the same problem you have reading Walt Whitman. You read him at all? Those two [freaks] wouldn't have lasted two minutes in this place.") After "Then We Came to the End" came "The Unnamed" – a murkier and more interior novel, less happily received. In a perfect world or a world governed by well-intentioned literary critics, Ferris's third book would have nimbly synthesized the crowd-pleasing comedy of his first and the darker philosophical preoccupations of his second. "To Rise Again at a Decent Hour" doesn't really pull this off: parts of it feel incoherent, the close observational material never quite joining with the larger theme.

And there is a larger theme – belonging. Paul is a metaphysical exile, the son of a suicide. Through successive girlfriends he has sought to join first a loving Catholic family, then a loving Jewish family. As the presence that designed his pseudo-website gradually reveals itself, it offers to him the possibility that he may be, genealogically, an "Ulm": one of a lost tribe of ancient doubters. Imagine that, modern man in search of a soul. Imagine discovering that you are no longer the orphan of the universe, but rather the spearhead of an illustrious ancestral-metaphysical lineage!

T. S. Eliot thought "Hamlet" a failure, deficient in respect of "the adequacy of the external to the emotion." Ferris isn't Shakespeare, and I'm not T. S. Eliot, but the diagnosis holds for "To Rise Again at a Decent Hour." In the despairing dentist with the online identity problem and the Bronze Age genealogy, this novel almost finds its "objective correlative," its outward expression of the inner mystery – but the elements do not, finally, knit. Which is a shame, because the inner mystery – that is, the mystery of existence – is worth addressing. You might say that it is the only thing worth addressing. And Ferris has made a sprawling, brawling, linguistically illuminated attempt to do so. My opinion? He'll get it right next time.

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