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Book Review: The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

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Joshua Ferris’s first novel, Then We Came to the End, won rave reviews through its artful and humorous look at office life. The book was honored with the PEN/Hemingway Award, and announced the arrival of a fresh, young talent on the scene. Most writers would be tempted to follow such a success with a similar recipe for their second novel. But not Ferris, who decided that, instead of tinkering with the formula, he ought to turn it upside down. In The Unnamed, his follow-up effort, he presents a dark, unsettling personal tragedy that is a world away from the élan of his award-winning debut book.

Tim Farnsworth has a peculiar medical affliction, one that is so rare that it lacks even a name. He periodically experiences an irresistible urge to walk… and walk and walk, until he collapses from exhaustion. When he awakes, he is lucid and again in control of his actions, but before long—and often at the least favorable moments—his legs again take control of him. Remember that interlude in Forrest Gump, when the title character embarks on an obsessive run that covers the whole country? Stretch that concept out for an entire novel, and you have some idea of The Unnamed.

Farnsworth’s affliction puzzles the medical profession. The various specialists who examine him in turn each fail to arrive at a treatment or event a diagnosis. The psychologists and psychiatrists have their chance as well, and are no more successful in unlocking the mystery of the walking man. An article is published in the New England Journal of Medicine, but if it establishes Farnsworth as a notable case it does nothing to rectify or even identify his anomalous situation.

I mentioned above that The Unnamed is a tragedy, but is that really the case? In tragedy, we deal with a character’s choices and their consequences, but in this story the most salient fact is that our protagonist does not choose. His self-destructive actions are outside of his control. The resulting narrative is eventful but often leaves the reader distinctly unengaged. Events transpire at an almost organic or cellular level, and thus become as morally neutral as the efforts of the character’s circulatory system digestive tract. Instead of drama, the story presents us with a recalcitrant biology.

Farnsworth’s story does inspire speculation on a host of philosophical issues, ranging from free will to the existence of God. If our hero isn’t responsible for his walking, who is? At times, Ferris seems ready to seize this opportunity and turn his book into a novel of ideas—a daring but commendable move at a time when most works of fiction seem focused on story lines suitable for lucrative movie adaptations. But Ferris seems uncomfortable taking this final step, and his character’s philosophical musings quickly collapse into the quasi-schizophrenic mutterings of the mentally ill. Farnsworth has now been transformed into the ultimate passive vessel, both physically and mentally.

Ferris tries to situate this tale of personal collapse into the context of Farnsworth’s family life and career. He even mixes in elements of a murder mystery—a promising subplot that is eventually left hanging, as is much else in this book. In the final analysis, the storyline here could be summed up in two words, the opposite of E. M. Forster’s famous dictum: Only disconnect! Farnsworth starts the novel as a successful lawyer, a husband and father, a paragon of responsibility and dedication to principle. But each of these connections will be stretched and sometimes sundered during the course of The Unnamed. Overwhelmed by his unruly legs, Farnsworth soon abandons any hope of a cure, and gradually becomes willing to settle for less and less in his struggles against his affliction.

It is revealing that the most engaging part of this novel comes when Ferris abandons his melancholy story for a few pages and returns to a comic presentation of the follies of office life — a reminder of the esprit of his previous novel. Farnsworth, in an attempt to engage his daughter in conversation, starts relating gossipy anecdotes about his colleagues at the law firm. This humorous interlude, unlike anything else in The Unnamed, is brilliantly conceived and reminds us how Ferris made earned his reputation as a storyteller in the first place.

But the energy level of the narrative soon dissipates, as our walking man starts walking again. At a late point in the novel, our hero wonders if he should have been paying more attention to what was happening around him on his lengthy journeys. How many exciting sub-plots did he miss, while he just doggedly kept pushing one foot ahead of the other? I imagine more than a few readers of this book will be asking themselves the same question.

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About Ted Gioia