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The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

By Brian Prisco & Intern Rusty | Books | January 29, 2010 |

By Brian Prisco & Intern Rusty | Books | January 29, 2010 |

Publisher’s Note: Celebrated author Joshua Ferris’ The Unnamed was released last week, and to celebrate the occasion, here are two reviews of the novel.

Brian Prisco’s Review

Have you ever been surprised by an artist? The one who immediately comes to mind is Danny Boyle. If you were to look over his canon of work, you’d be mindblown. From drug epic, to children’s film, to Bollywood spectacle, to unexpected sci-fi, the man changes spots every season. Such was the shock of The Unnamed. I went in expecting something funny and maudlin and brackish like And Then We Came to the End. And instead, I received a heartcrushing punch to the sternum. The Unnamed is a very different book, a total diversion from his other work, completely unexpected and absolutely soul-smashingly wistful. It’s like expecting a ghost story and having someone go into great and morose detail describing the death of a parent by withering cancer. Only that someone is James Earl Jones, and his voice melts your brain.

The Unnamed is a horror story and a love story. A man suffers from a disease that’s unexplainable, a disease so ludicrous that he can’t logically explain it to anyone because it doesn’t exist. It causes him to wander aimlessly. It’s a simple disease, and yet devastating. And it totally unravels the man’s life.

We watch how it erodes his family, his career as a lawyer, his relationship with his daughter, and his marriage. It’s the battle of wills between Tim and Jane that keeps you reading the novel. It’s dealing with a disease so stupid and unthinkable, something that might even be fake, that the novel hinges on, but it’s watching it destroy Tim and Jane, tear them apart like two caramel stuck apples. A lot of people will not like this book, because they can’t imagine what it’s like to watch someone you love go away.

On the surface, it is a pretty stupid conceit. A man wanders, endlessly, going mad with a madness that may or may not be real, shredding a life and love that are true and real. The third act is truly insane, almost as if Ferris himself wandered crazily from his own life and watched his novel tear off like an unleashed dog.

However, I chose to read the novel as if Tim’s unexplainable disease were fake. I read it like his disease was actually the restlessness most of us feel in our current lives: a displeasure with our careers or situations and an unquenchable need to simply wander off. Have you never felt compelled to just walk out of your job, leave your career, leave your entire life behind, and go somewhere else? That’s how I chose to read Ferris’s novel and it broke my heart.

Intern Rusty

Joshua Ferris already explored the work side of upper middle class individuals in his previous novel Then We Came to the End. In this novel, he looks at the home life of Tim and Jane Farnsworth. He’s a high-priced attorney, she’s a real estate agent, and then have one daughter whose struggles with her weight lead her to become moody and isolated from her parents and peers. They have a beautiful house in the suburbs of New York city, drive nice cars, and have enough money that they never have to worry about it. Tim loves his job, Jane enjoys hers, and Becka’s weight issues and minor tiffs with her parents inspire her music. Your basic upper middle class family. Except that Tim has a mysterious disease that comes in bouts. When Tim is in the holds of the disease, he’ll just take off walking and can’t stop until he literally drops from exhaustion. He has no control over how long, how far, or where he walks to, but the walking usually takes him away from his house or job and out towards the wilderness. The book starts with the third recurrence of Tim’s illness.

There’s never a reason given for Tim’s walking. He and Jane have been to dozens of doctors trying to discern the cause, and have gotten nowhere. Opinions are split as to whether it’s purely physical or a mental issue (Tim insists it’s physical, both because of the compulsive nature of the walking and because of his desire that the illness be “real” rather than “all in his head”) but no one can give them any answers; all attempts at treatment have failed; and it’s finally up to Tim and Jane to deal as best they can and deal with the fallout later. The recurrence that kicks off the book does end, but it sees Tim demoted at his job and Jane battling demons of her own that have been brought out by her husband’s illness. After a brief period of respite, Tim starts walking again.

The Unnamed is a hard book to get one’s brain around. Tim is difficult to sympathize with because the reader obviously can’t know what he’s going through; Jane and Becka are easier to understand but they’re secondary characters. The jumps in time also lead to some difficulties in figuring out what’s going on; in the second half of the book there will frequently be periods of months or even years which are simply glossed over. Obviously this is a technique that authors use frequently, but since Ferris told the first half of the story in a very day-by-day fashion, having the second half spread itself out over a nearly indeterminate period of time is a strange mental leap for the reader. The concept of the novel is interesting, but it feels like more could have been done with it — two of the most powerful images that come out of the book lead nowhere even after being specifically noted by Tim as though they’ll be important later. Tim himself moves further and further away from sympathetic in the second half of the novel, even devolving into semi-psychotic rants about God and the nature of freedom, lending evidence to the idea that his disease is mental, but then also talks about how he can fight the disease at times as though he is waging war on his own body, which would point to physical. However, there comes a change in Tim’s drive against the disease towards the end of the book that makes it harder to view him sympathetically. I won’t reveal spoilers, but you can see it coming and it’s agonizing to watch it happen.

The Unnamed is an interesting book, but not nearly as easy to sink one’s teeth into as The We Came to the End was. For starters, there are far fewer characters, but it’s also more difficult to discern what the novel is about. Is it really just dealing with a man with an undiagnosed and yet seemingly terminal disease? Or is Tim’s walking meant to indicate a fundamental conflict between nature and culture? It’s hard to say, and I expect that each person who reads this novel will come out of it with a different interpretation and allegiance. Overall, though, it’s a dense but interesting read that will be intriguing to anyone who enjoyed Ferris’s previous efforts.

Per FTC regulations, this is a review of an advanced reader copy that I received free from the Hachette Book Group.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.