Doctor Paul C O’Rourke is a dentist in New York whose life is sent upside down when a website, an email address, a twitter account and a facebook page are all set up in his name propounding the history and tenets of the Ulms. The Ulm aren’t just a religion, they are a people, a race that claims to be more persecuted than the Jews whose religious book, the Cantaveticles, includes an older version of the Biblical Job.
At first, Paul is outraged. He is an atheist who deplores all but the communal trappings of religion. But he has spent his life trying to belong, especially since his father’s suicide, and a religion that claims doubt as its binding principle, a religion that is also a family – all of them genetically linked to the original line of Ulms from the time of the Old Testament – is an appealing prospect. So far, the closest he has come to a family’s embrace, outside of his love for the Red Sox, is through the families of his respective girlfriends. He shares this desperation to belong with the leader of the newly formed Ulm and their online exchange moves from outrage to intrigue.
I suspect I missed the point of this novel. Though there were many moments when a comment would tickle my mind, or the witty and meticulous depiction of isolation and loneliness in the midst of a metropolis moved me to world-weary empathy, I simply wasn’t gripped. This is an interesting book about the god-hole we are all said to harbour within us, about what lengths people will go to in order to belong including fighting against those who don’t, but it remains ungrounded for me. Paul is himself too disconnected to give this roughshod ride through Catholicism, Judaism and Ulmism emotional punch. However, as I say, I think it may simply be that the novel didn’t speak to me as it will or does to others. I’d swap The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth into the shortlist for the Man Booker and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour back out onto the longlist. But if dental hygiene and a longing to belong are your bag, do read this and disagree with me.
Next week I’m reading The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee, followed by The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.