Meet Paul C. O’Rourke, DDS. During the day, his instrument of choice is the drill. (“It was one big mouth to me – one big open, straining, gleeking, unhappy, discomfited, slowly decaying mouth.”) Yet during more ruminative times, he continues to drill within himself, seeking the answers to how to move forward in a meaningless world filled with decay.
And then one day, his existential search for meaning shifts into a whole other dimension when a mysterious stranger hijacks his identity on the Internet. Suddenly, Paul is forced into the online world with a website, Facebook page, tweets, and provocative blog comments regarding an obscure religious sect called the Ulms (who claim to be the natural heirs of Amalek from the Old Testament). Their chief belief is NO belief; they believe in nothing but their obligation to doubt God. As Paul soon learns, “Others believe we face a real enemy, an existential threat, in every generation. Every generation must recognize who Amalek is or that generation, and every generation must prepare to fight it any way it can.”
What’s a poor atheist to do? Even Paul’s office manager and former love interest begins to wonder if the postings are really from Paul. And Paul – who worships only the Red Sox – becomes more and more unsettled, remembering misguided affairs and luring temptations with a Catholic woman and a Jewish woman and the rituals and fervor of their faith and their family.
This seriocomic novel takes on a number of timely and relevant topics: the growing disconnect of generations that are now tethered to their me-machine (i.e., cell phone) instead of to each other. The particular dislocation caused by online identity theft. The difference between an authentic life and an online pretend life. The attraction of the trappings of religion versus the reality of the tribalism and exclusion are inherent in all of them.
As Paul struggles with the knowledge that his invented online version may be a better version than his real self, he reveals the human condition and the search for meaning: how there has to be hope no matter how hopeless. It’s a dazzling feat.
Joshua Ferris has obviously done ample research into the ancient religions and Paul’s exploration of what it means sometimes threatens to hijack the narrative. Still, this absurd yet profound novel is a page turner and reveals the author’s virtuoso talents. The book’s inventiveness turns it into a 5-star read.
Reviewed by Jill Shtulman
Jill Shtulman is the owner of JSA Creative Services LLC, a Chicago-based marketing communications company specializing in the writing of web and print-based content. She has long been a top reviewer for Amazon and is followed by over 250 readers at GoodReads. She also has blogged for Mostly Fiction.