As I believe I have mentioned, most of the books I read were recommended to me by trusted literary friends. Sometimes I will read a book simply because I have read and enjoyed the author in the past. Occasionally an article or review of a book will pique my interest, though I fear spoilers, so largely avoid any critiques containing too-thorough plot analyses, and try to steer clear of hype. No, I’m not an elitist or a snob, but popular taste and my own personal taste don’t always coincide. Yeah, there is no way to say that without sounding like a snob. So be it. But, for the life of me, I can’t remember where I first heard about this book. It was not from a friend. I have never read Ferris before. I don’t remember reading any articles. It’s a mystery.
And the book itself is a bit of a mystery. I read it. I did enjoy it. At times. But it also took me places I didn’t necessarily want to go. Doubts. Big doubts. Big picture doubts. The biggest.
The main character is a sort of Gen-Y everyman, grinding away as a steadily busy dentist in New York. His life is…depressing, empty, painfully routine, intensely lonely. He’s kind of neurotic. But there is a sort of charm to it. It’s pathetic, but endearingly so. As though he has chosen this life, full of self-induced emptiness, numbness, as a sort of less painful alternative to what his life would be like instead. From all outward appearances, I would seem to have nothing in common with such a character, though inwardly I felt very connected to him. He’s a person capable of dreams, but almost conscientiously avoiding those dreams. Avoiding their pursuit for fear of failure. Or worse, for fear of obtaining those dreams and finding their realization unfulfilling.
The book addressed faith and religion in a unique and creative way. Doubt is nothing new, nor the main character’s sentiment that, to him, “a church is simply a place to be bored in.” p. 10. I don’t know if I could do the concept of the book justice, and I told you I don’t like spoilers, but what about doubt as religion? A religion of doubt? Take God out of the picture, but not worship. Not devotion. Just God. (This whole line of question/thought reminds me of the “atheist churches” that there was all that hype about a few months ago, started as a joke, by comedians, but then people were like “hey, that’s not a bad idea”).
The main character also has a strange relationship with women. Even by the end of the book, I’m not sure what it is he is looking for from them. Completion? Identity? Nurturing? Mothering? There is a line, which I won’t spoil, about New York women, and the cruelty of beauty. Amen. In this context, he also talks about the Things Could Be Worse/Things Could Be Better game. Both statements are always true; what value is there in their consideration?
He talks about another concept that has long fascinated me, and I have ironically discussed here before. Technology. Particularly social networking. He talks about already feeling separated from people, removed from people, left out. And then along comes the internet, and here is an additional layer of remove. Thanks a lot! Throughout the book, he also refers to “me-machines,” which he never explicitly identifies as such, but you gather from the context that he is talking about smart phones. And what a sad and loaded label that is. And how we hide behind them. Don’t really live life. Really fascinating insights, I thought.
He even bashes emoticons, you know, like “;)”, labeling them “typographical juvenilia.” That two word phrase was about the most delightful thing I have read in a long time. The rest of the book could have been complete crap, but would have been worth reading for that line alone.
Almost as funny was the mention of a bumper sticker he spotted on a Saab in downtown Boston: “Believers made me an atheist.” I think both believers and non-believers can grin at the humor and its underlying truth.
He talks about fear. What I refer to in my own life as “night fear” or “night thoughts.” Those dark thoughts that creep up on you, usually only at night, almost always when you’re trying to go to sleep, the only one still awake in the house, or, you fear (as he fears), in the entire world, no matter how strange or irrational or impossible those thoughts and feelings seem by light of day.
The darkest part of the book is the main character’s obsession with death. And this got pretty grisly for me. His night thoughts crept into his days, into every aspect of his life. He couldn’t treat patients, have pets, do anything really without an overwhelming sense of futility, because death is eventual, and looked at big picture, imminent. I struggled with reading some of that stuff. It’s like seeing your worst fears written and being forced to think about them when you’d rather be doing anything else, thinking about anything else. I’m a firm believer that great literature doesn’t need to just make you feel good, as long as it makes you feel things powerfully. But this felt like almost too much at times. Life’s big questions, but who wants to think about them? One of life’s greatest blessings is that we are ever capable of thinking about anything else.
He addresses, less darkly, the impossibility of seeing hope for humanity when faced with the reality of the unwashed masses swirling all about at, say, a shopping mall.
He talked about being “too happy to write.” Suggesting some, and maybe all writers (artists?) need unhappiness, maybe even misery, to create. I thought this was a fascinating concept, and may merit further, separate consideration.
Oh, and I loved what I think is a very original and clever description of nostalgia, and how it is sort of false, and how wallowing in an old favorite song or book or memory is just a cheap imitation, because what we are really wanting is not to hear that song again, but to hear it again for the first time. What we miss most is not the thing itself, but the newness of the thing, the first time experience. Anyway, as one who relentlessly haunts his own memory lanes, this resonated with me.
I found the whole book uniquely original, both in voice and in content. I enjoyed it and it made me think, and it made me laugh, but it also made me intensely uncomfortable at times. I am fascinated by how modern society and technology can possibly inter-relate with hope and faith and belief. I sometimes do wonder why we aren’t all despairing. One of the most powerful and unique and compelling books I have read in a long time. Check it out.