I have a tricky relationship with dentists. Because of genetic weirdness, the roots of my baby teeth mostly didn’t disappear like they were supposed to, so I had to have them pulled. Oh, and did I mention? I’m immune to Novocaine. As a kid, I used to sit in the dentist chair, wearing a bib and staring into a bright light, praying hard that God would Rapture me before the dentist came back. Sure, I knew I’d miss out on getting married, having kids, etc., but that seemed a small price to pay to avoid another date with the wrench. (Seriously — they used an actual wrench to pull out my teeth. Hashtag: #stuffofnightmares.)
I have a complicated relationship with Christianity, too. (Most seven-year-old girls who fervently pray to be raptured grow up to have complicated relationships with God, I’m guessing.) So Joshua Ferris’s To Rise again at a Decent Hour — about a dentist dealing with religion — seemed pretty much perfect for me. (Also, I loved his novel And then We Came to an End.)
This is the story of a Paul, a dentist who lives his life mostly hypocritically: He tells his patients to floss, but he doesn’t like to do it. He doesn’t believe in God, but he’s attracted to people (and families, in particular) who do. He can’t commit to one relationship, but he can’t sleep when he’s alone. The story begins when someone sets Paul up with a website and social media accounts without his approval, and it really heats up when the unwanted ghostwriter (ghostposter?) starts using Paul’s accounts to evangelize for a strange new religion that holds doubt as its central sacrament.
I thought I’d love To Rise again at a Decent Hour, but I didn’t. It’s well-written enough, but it’s an issue-driven book, and Ferris doesn’t really prove his thesis, which seems to be:
- Religion is useful not because of its truth, but because its inherent comfort drives out loneliness.
- A religion based on doubt (like the one Ferris creates) is unique and compelling.
What drew me into the book initially was Ferris’s perfectly expressed description of the seeming emptiness of life, but he seems to think that organized religion, with its community focus and its drive toward purpose and meaning, erases this feeling, when in fact it can magnify it. I’m religious, but I relate nearly completely with the loneliness, cynicism and self-doubt expressed by Paul at the beginning of the book — the feelings Ferris argues aren’t compatible with religious belief.
The fictional religion Ferris creates with doubt as its central tenant and sacrament has a lot of potential that Ferris never really develops. He presents Judaism and Christianity in particular as faith systems that exclude doubt, but that view leaves out quite a bit of the Torah and the Bible, including Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, Job’s reaction when he lost everything, almost anything any of the prophets said to God, the desolate outcries of the Psalms, all of Ecclesiastes, the last words of Christ, etc. Instead of spotlighting the interconnection of faith and doubt like I’d hoped he would, Ferris makes the same mistake that certain shallow-thinking believers do, assuming that true faith is the absence of skepticism instead of realizing that faith cannot exist without it.
I read scripture as a struggle, and I experience religion that way, too. According to Ferris, my questions are incompatible with real faith. I’m sure a lot of Christians would agree with him, but I’m not so sure the holy books would. Wrestling with the paradox that faith can coexist with doubt is what’s complicated about religion, and also what’s beautiful about it. There’s none of that complexity in To Rise again at a Decent Hour, and so there’s none of the beauty, either. The characters are good and the story is fine, but this book could have been layered and instead is clichéd.
Still, to be fair — I prefer it to a trip to the dentist.
Carrie Rollwagen is book buyer and co-owner at Church Street Coffee & Books, an independent coffee shop and bookstore in Birmingham, Alabama.