Joshua Ferris’s last novel, The Unnamed, a dark tale of an outwardly successful man who keeps walking out on his family due to an undiagnosed compulsion, was hailed by critics as an “unnerving” representation of the anxiety of alienation. In his third novel, Ferris returns to this theme more lightly, rendering it through the eyes of an isolated New York dentist.
Paul O’Rourke is in his mid-30s and runs a busy Park Avenue dental practice. Childless, unmarried, subsisting on takeout and alcohol, Paul is obsessed with death, seeing in every cavity he fills a reminder of mortality. Each set of teeth is a canvas of society’s failings toward the poor, the elderly, the young, and the spoiled (one investment banker is so high he is unaware of devastating rot along his jawline). Paul’s sense of “terminal hopelessness” as he “whistles past the grave of every mouth” is reinforced by the presence of three tormenting figures: his beautiful ex-girlfriend and receptionist, Connie; a Catholic head hygienist rhapsodically concerned about Paul’s lack of faith; and a silent dental assistant who seems always to be judging him.
With few friends, though many Contacts, Paul expresses his rootlessness in darkly funny meditations on the meaninglessness of contemporary life – in particular, “connectedness,” which he resists to the extent of refusing to set up a website for his practice. “I was a dentist, not a website. I was a muddle, not a brand. I was a man, not a profile. They wanted to contain my life with a summary of its purchases and preferences, prescription medications, and predictable behaviors. That was not a man. That was an animal in a cage.”
One of the most compelling arguments made in this novel is that the spell of the Internet is religious, and that the hypnotic “call” of texts, messages, Facebook, is akin to prayer. An outsized Everyman, Paul’s extraordinary longing to belong makes him hurl himself with clumsy self-absorption into the families and religious communities of the women he falls in love with. Invariably abandoned, he declares: “I had seen God but God was gone.” This spiritual hunger eventually makes him vulnerable to the elements of his culture that he despises. Paul affirms that he hates “me-machines,” Twitter, and the Internet as a whole, but when a false online persona is mysteriously set up for him – complete with business website, Twitter account, and online comments in his name – he becomes addicted to his smartphone and anxious about the impression his virtual self is making. When his false self begins disseminating cryptic messages about religion, Paul’s abstraction grows wildly disruptive.
This age-old tension between worldly self and inner self, cleverly tailored by Ferris to the Internet era, is not fully developed. Instead, as though the author believes Paul’s suspicion that he has no real self, the story pivots away from Paul’s life into Old Testament minutiae, based on the contents of the messages posted by Paul’s false self. We discover that there is an actual person behind the online persona, the founder of an obscure sect of doubters claiming kinship with an ancient Semitic tribe; Paul apparently belongs to this sect by virtue of a hidden lineage. The sect’s founder has made it his business to reach out to other “Ulms” using such bizarre methods as setting up websites for them. Things become curiouser and curiouser as we follow Paul down this rabbit hole, meeting a famous billionaire, a petite private detective, an antiquarian bookseller, the ex-wife of the sect’s founder, and other characters holding clues to Paul’s connection to the “Ulms.”
By catapulting us out of Paul’s reality, Ferris lets slip a precious opportunity. The first part of this book asks “what is the point of it all?” with a grandeur noteworthy for the questioner’s mundane context. The second part offers an absurdly pedestrian answer. Paul’s membership in the Ulm community places on him only one obligation, that of doubting the existence of God; he is thereby, Ferris implies, liberated to “go with it,” accept the meaninglessness of the universe, post updates, stream movies, start thinking of others and “never worry about any of it.” Suddenly Paul is blissfully ordering takeout and watching back-to-back baseball games while keeping a lonely old patient company.
We miss the old Paul. His intellectual acceptance of an inheritance of doubt seems hardly likely to do away with the railing skepticism, social critique, and preoccupation with mortality that were the native fruits of his daily existence, and which endeared him to us. It is as though Ferris's narrative, which begins so ambitiously, falls victim to the very cultural shallowness bemoaned by its protagonist, who ends up, in essence, a happy cult member, satisfied with the spiritual crumbs of a yearly trip to a doubting compound in Israel.
Aparna Sanyal is a writer and editor living in Toronto.