Reviewed by April Henry
Joshua Ferris' second novel, The Unnamed, concerns Tim Farnsworth, a partner in a big Manhattan law firm. He and his wife, Jane, have a beautiful house and a sullen teenager, Becka, and call each other "banana."
There's only one problem in Tim's life, but it's all-consuming. Twice before he's been stricken with a mysterious, uncontrollable illness (the "unnamed" of the title) that forces him to walk until he collapses. Jane has collected him from fields, benches and the back of a barbershop. Doctors are baffled, unsure if it's mental or physical. He's been written up in the New England Journal of Medicine.
As the book opens, Tim tells Jane, "it's back." Because the urge to walk might strike at any moment, they dress him warmly and outfit him with a GPS and a supply-filled backpack. At one point, Tim is wheeling the garbage bins to the curb. "He knew halfway down that he would not be back for the third. He knew the sensation as an epileptic knows an aura." Handcuffs, restraints, drugs -- nothing can quell Tim's drive to walk.
Tim's forced march could be a metaphor for serious illness, how it brings people together and then pulls them apart, pushes them into actions that they regret, and pares them down to the bone. Tim loses his job, his dignity, his family, his health, his fingers and toes. Toward the end, Tim walks "barefoot and near-naked on the side of the road, his belly distended and his leg dragging along."
The Unnamed also points out how our busy lives have left us unable to experience the moment. "He had promised himself not to take anything for granted and now he couldn't recall the moment that promise had given way to the everyday." At one point, Tim, eager to regain his old position, repeatedly checks his Blackberry to see if a senior partner has responded to a motion he's written. Then he realizes that if he succeeds, "He'd be checking his BlackBerry five hundred times a day. What kind of life was that? As these thoughts came over him, he started paying attention for the first time that day."
Tim has been walking over what he originally thought was fallen leaves. Instead it's "a thin blanket of dead bees... thousands of delicate brown and yellow carapaces." So perhaps Ferris wants to warn us about the failing environment. Later in the book, blackbirds fall out of the sky, first one, then a whole flock. "They hit with heavy thuds and lay scattered like jacks on the road. Then darkness fell and he was walking again."
Ferris' first book was loved by critics and readers. Bitingly funny, Then We Came to the End was set in the familiar world of an office. The characters worked in advertising, as had Ferris, and it was so spot-on that at a staff meeting at my then-job in marketing, I read a paragraph aloud.
Ferris has set himself a far higher hurdle with Tim's story. Tim's disease isn't real, so we must imagine it. Ferris has never been a lawyer, and his descriptions of Tim's day job don't quite ring true. A subplot about a murder goes nowhere. And finally, instead of being funny, The Unnamed is relentlessly grim.
At one point, when Tim is strapped to a bed, he tells Becka stories about his fellow lawyers. "Are you sure you want to listen to this?" he asks her repeatedly. She says yes, but readers might not. However, those who persevere will be rewarded with beautiful prose and indelible images.
Books mentioned in this post