by Joshua Ferris
Reviewed by Nathan Weatherford
Joshua Ferris's The Unnamed could almost be mistaken for a Cormac McCarthy novel. Not that it bears any resemblance to McCarthy's prophetic style; indeed, the spare descriptions Ferris employs to tell the story are simple, down-to-earth constructions. Nor does Ferris draw attention to any violence that occurs over the course of his tale. But at its most basic level -- that of plot -- the reader could be forgiven for confusing the two authors.
The Unnamed centers around the plight of Tim Farnsworth, an average man stricken with an unknown (perhaps unknowable) disease that at random intervals throughout his life forces him to walk. And walk. This overpowering urge can strike at any time -- its frequency can vary from multiple times per day to years in between episodes. While Tim remains conscious during these forced marches across city and countryside, he has no physical or mental control over what makes his body move. He is simply along for the ride, regardless of blisters, sunburn, and myriad other bodily vicissitudes. Ferris describes the condition in such dark passages as the following:
He looked down at his legs. It was like watching footage of legs walking from the point of view of the walker. That was the helplessness, this was the terror: the brakes are gone, the steering wheel has locked, I am at the mercy of this wayward machine.
As a portrait of a man's life taken over (and also of those who are forced to do what they can with the resulting wreckage), The Unnamed more than succeeds. As Tim's walks become ever more prolonged and wearying over the course of the novel, Ferris's sentences begin to take on the same dogged character, until by the end of the tale the reader feels as if he, too, has lost control and has no way of knowing where it all will end up -- if it ever ends. By refraining from passing any moral judgment on his characters -- in fact, actively maintaining that morality has nothing to do with this sickness -- Ferris makes his point even more effective: events happen every day that we can't control. Life is how we respond to them.
Nathan Weatherford works in IT at Powell’s, but swears he is an English major. His favorite author is Marilynne Robinson, followed closely by Flannery O'Connor and J.R.R. Tolkien. He realizes that the two well-respected female authors don't hide the fact that he likes reading about Middle-Earth, and is ok with this.