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  • Photography by Mr Bjorn Iooss | Words by Mr John Ortved

The internet is not amusing. At least not to Paul O'Rourke, the conflicted dentist who is the protagonist of Mr Joshua Ferris' new book To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Although Paul loves his iPhone, he is determinedly anti-digital: he still uses a VCR to record baseball games; his dental practice does not even have a website.

His carefully orchestrated life is severely disrupted when an obscure religious group hijacks his online identity. (Paul is an avowed atheist, albeit with a tinge of spiritual longing.) The violation leads Paul on a thoroughly modern quest of discovery, which forces him – and Mr Ferris' readers – to re-examine deep questions about life, death, religion and who we are as people. But not in a dull, pretentious way; it's entertaining as well as thought-provoking.

Mr Ferris's 2010 debut Then We Came to the End won the PEN/Hemingway award. We caught up with the author in his hometown of Manhattan for a look inside his and his hero's heads.

Blazer by Thom Sweeney | Shirt by Thom Browne | Tie by Charvet

Why did you make Paul a dentist?
A dentist has to deal with a kind of awkward place in the body: the mouth. For a dentist, that's what gives you access to the body, death and decay and to injury... It gave me an opportunity to use death as a very close backdrop to all of this religious search that happens.
What prompted the book's exploration of religion?
When I was a kid I didn't have one specific religion; we moved around. We were promiscuous believers. I come from a long line of divorces; my parents were divorced a lot. And whenever anybody new would enter the romantic field, we seemed to gravitate towards their religion. When I got a little older, I started meeting people who were entrenched in Catholicism and Judaism. As an outsider, I would look in and see this strongly bound group of people, all centred around religious tradition, and I envied it. So it started with that.
So are you an atheist?
I'd probably describe myself as a non-practicing atheist. I tend to think it's important for the sake of a writer's imagination to withstand the more rational aspects of experience, to allow for the possibility. I don't allow the rational understanding I have in my own brain about these things to overrule the more mystical possibilities that might occur in a day. That being said, I tend to think there is no god.
Is that because you're a Red Sox fan?
At one point, I tried to figure out if the time of exile for the Jews was proportional to the time that passed between the Red Sox's last World Series victory in 1918 to 2004, when they finally won it again. Very clearly it was on my mind that just as the Jews were long suffering, so were the Red Sox fans. I was a Red Sox fan for many years. And I'm from Chicago. The Chicago Cubs are the perennial losers; the longest losing team in all of professional sports. That sticks with a man.
Do you have any nostalgia for a pre-digital time?
I don't really have that nostalgia. I like my iPhone.

Personality is sort of messy, it allowsfor mistakes, for rough edges. That's not the case with branding. Branding is... very thought through and calculated

Paul calls his iPhone a "me-machine"...
Whenever you look into your phone, you can see an image of yourself [reflected]. We carry around our little Narcissus pools to gaze into. You could give your whole day to this little thing. And I'm as bad as anybody else. I do it all day long.
Do you think being constantly online has changed us?
Oh yes. It's got to, sure. It calms us in the way my parents' generation used cigarettes to calm them. You need to find out what's going on right now, instantly, and once you do it soothes you. It's an opiate of sorts.
One of the themes in the book concerns that battle between who we are in reality and how we brand ourselves online via social media profiles.
Personality is a good contrast to branding because personality is sort of messy, it allows for mistakes, for rough edges. That's not the case with branding. Branding is very curated. It's very thought through and calculated. You smooth out those rough edges; you make everything a bit artificial. You control it. And it's that way online but it's not that way in life.
But you can't control the internet. In the book, a website for Paul's dental practice mysteriously pops up – and one bad online review plagues him. How do you take online criticism yourself?
You [now] have people weighing in [with opinions] in ways they've never done before. Very often people say nice things. The thing about being a writer is the good only gets you back to zero. The bad is what sits with you. But that's just the way it is. Take it for what it is and move on and do your work. Writing is what I love to do. Relative to the drive I have to write, online criticism is really minor.
Paul has his online identity hijacked. Do you worry about security online?
Only insofar as I can control it. Most of the time I can't. People say a lot of stuff about me online [there are some unkind reviews on Amazon] and what am I going to do? I can't shut it down. Somebody is always going to create the narrative. If you're not going to do it yourself, somebody is going to do it for you. But I don't spend a lot of time online. I tend to want to live out here in the world.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
by Mr Joshua Ferris is on sale now

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