Joshua Ferris’ new novel started out well enough, but then I got bored or tired of it. Based on my experience with two of his novels (this being the second one), this tends to be the way I react to his work. (Except for one amazing short story of his, Breeze – I wasn’t bored by that, not even after multiple re-readings. I can draw all kinds of conclusions from this fact – mostly about the length of time I can be mesmerized by Ferris.)
Staying in the realm of wild generalizations: the themes Ferris writes about are interesting and relevant to me, and in the beginning, they always excite my mind – and then my excitement slowly drains away. The same happened this time, even though I started this novel with great expectations. I am easily amused, and if the blurb says that this is an existentialist novel, 21st century style, I immediately become interested and put all my doubts aside.
Perhaps I shouldn’t. Especially not with this novel, as it turns out that the main theme here is exactly that: doubting.
The main character, Paul is an alienated New York dentist, a devout atheist, and an eternal doubter. Paul spends his nights thrashing about in his bed in anguish, afraid that he is the only person awake in the whole world during the godforsaken small hours, and spends his days contemplating the sad situation that entropy only increases, teeth inevitably rot, and we will all die one day – therefore it doesn’t make any sense to enjoy anything in life.
Still, Paul keeps trying. For one thing, he tends to get romantically involved with women who come from strictly religious families, and during his relationships, Paul tends to fall in love with the devout Catholic or devout Jewish families of his girl-friends just as deeply as he falls in love with the women themselves. It seems that Paul is looking for tradition, belief, past, history – but he never finds what he’s looking for, or doesn’t feel at home in what he finds.
Then a mysterious online Paul shows up. He advocates the religion of eternal skepticism, and claims that the real Paul is a descendant of an almost-forgotten ancient nation, a nation who used to follow the religion of doubt. What follows is Paul continuing doubting everything – but this time it’s normal and expected, and he at least feels at home in doubting.
I guess this really is existentialism 21st century style. And it’s not bad, but it doesn’t blow my mind, because this is something I already know, and Ferris doesn’t throw an unexpected light on the thing I already know – he doesn’t make it unknown to me.
Anyway, while I was reading this novel, I dutifully flossed my teeth every night – a practice I tend to neglect because – in full agreement with Paul – I also think that flossing is a pain in the butt, something that’s always easier to start doing tomorrow. But if I did something for a long and joyful life during those few days then it was already worth it, and then I’d be willing to read other 21st century existentialist novels about doubting dentists – if any further such novels exist.