February 25, 2010

Joshua Ferris: The Unnamed

Posted in Ferris Joshua at 8:00 am by John Self

I disliked Joshua Ferris’s debut novel Then We Came to the End, though surprisingly, the withholding of my approval didn’t seem to harm its global success.  I decided to read his next book anyway, partly because I began to wonder if everyone else was right and I was wrong last time, and also because Ferris’s interest in fiction about work chimes with my own.  (A foolish motive, like buying a book because it’s been praised by a writer you like: and I’ve done plenty of that too.)  Plus, I got a free copy, and read it during my blog sabbatical last autumn.

The Unnamed is blurbed as a sort of middle-class malaise novel: “Tim Farnsworth is a handsome, healthy man, ageing with the grace of a matinée idol. He loves his work.  He loves his family.  He loves his kitchen.  And then one day he stands up and walks out on all of it.”  So far so Revolutionary Road, so ‘Poetry of Departures’.  But the conceit in fact is a lot more interesting – and eccentric – than expected.  In fact Tim (I can’t bear to call him Farnsworth, a name no Futurama fan can take seriously) keeps on walking because he literally cannot stop.  He suffers from what we might call the paramilitary wing of Restless Legs Syndrome.   Not only that, he has no control over where he walks, so his wife has become used to prepping him with flasks of tea and Kendal Mint Cake (or US equivalent), and picking him up from faraway highways and forests, when his body finally tires and he drops. No doctor has been able to diagnose his condition (the closest they get is the reflexive “benign idiopathic perambulation,” which doesn’t explain it so much as just describe it) and, not surprisingly, investigations have tended toward the psychiatric rather than the physical.  Even his teenage daughter thinks “he’s mental.”

(The premise is loosely similar to that of Alan Lightman’s 2000 novel The Diagnosis – prosperous middle-aged man suffers mysterious ailment which seems an analogue for existential angst and social dislocation.  I haven’t read Lightman’s book; can anyone comment further on the parallels?)

Ferris’s approach, to settle a seemingly allegorical story in a grounded reality, makes for a strange and uneven book.  He spends a good deal of time dealing with the implausibility of Tim’s condition, addressing presumed reader FAQs like why he doesn’t handcuff himself to the bed, or hire a bodyguard, filling and filling and filling in background like pouring sand into a jar of rocks, when the oddness of the premise should, in my view, have been celebrated and embraced and not explained away.  I felt that Paul Auster or Magnus Mills would have been braver with the material.

Then I began to recognise that Ferris’s angle has a bravery of its own.  By insisting on the details of Tim’s work, family, and history, he humanises the story and makes the bold progression of the narrative increasingly troubling and moving.  (A fellow blogger’s succinct comment on The Unnamed was “Jesus that is one brutal book”.)  Each of the four parts of the book has a title from Emily Dickinson’s poem about the effects of grief:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes —
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs —
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round —
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought —
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone —

This is the Hour of Lead —
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go —

I did wonder however whether Ferris intended the book to explore the issues of the poem, or whether he merely liked the phrase “The Feet, mechanical” (the title of part one) and built the entire book around that.  I had other moments of doubt too: The Unnamed is littered with what can only be deliberate examples of bad TV dialogue (“‘You stupid bastard!’ she cried between clenched teeth.  Angry tears came from her eyes like stubborn nails jerked out of brickwork.  ‘You don’t fucking tell me that?'”) and descriptive prose (“Overcast was riveted to the sky as grey to a battleship”; “Futility made off with his heart”) that had me scratching my head at their intent.

I didn’t really know what I thought of this book until after I’d finished it.  Eventually, it was Ferris’s willingness to give it to his characters (and readers) with both barrels that won me over.  It is its harshness, as much as its high-concept premise, that makes The Unnamed memorable.  As an allegory for our lack of control in our own lives, and the futility of our endeavours (well, the title does bring Beckett to mind) – and of ‘the only end of days’ – it is provocative and impressive.  “The author has made a darkly affecting book out of what appears to be unpromising material.”  That was Publishers’ Weekly on Lightman’s The Diagnosis.  I’d say it holds good for The Unnamed too.

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17 Comments »

  1. worm said,

    hmm… I too failed to see any merit in his first book – but I’m willing to give him another try!

  2. kimbofo said,

    Totally agree. I wasn’t too sure whether I wanted to read it at first. I mean, it’s such a ridiculous premise for a book, but the writing was effortless (apart from the occasionally trying-too-hard bits that you quote above) and I got swept away by the story. From the comments on my blog, I think his first book was a bit of a Marmite one, and I largely suspect The Unnamed is the same.

    I’ve not read any Lightman, but I though the book was in a similar vein to The Time Traveler’s Wife in the sense that the wife gets lumbered with a husband, with an odd untreatable “disease”, who disappears for large chunks of time and she’s never actually sure whether he’s going to come back in any fit state.

  3. Wilson Knut said,

    I thought Then We Came To The End was okay, but it tried too hard in places to be a literary The Office. I’ll put this one on the ever growing to-be-read list.

  4. Jess said,

    I enjoyed Then We Came to the End — but that may have been in part because when I read it, I was working for a company that was in the process of being bought out, and my coworkers and I were all waiting to see who would be laid off first. It struck a chord. I thought Ferris did a surprisingly good job maintaining the first-person plural, though, and making the whole terrible situation terribly funny.

    Thanks for the great, in-depth review of The Unnamed.

  5. nicole said,

    I’m pretty sure I saw the line “Overcast was riveted to the sky as grey to a battleship” praised somewhere or other in the past few weeks, and was highly confused. And this did sound like “unpromising material” so your final positive take has me giving it a second thought.

  6. Sam said,

    I thought his first book was great, so very much looking forward to reading this.

  7. EG said,

    Aren’t many of the greatest stories made from unpromising material or unpromising premises? Kafka – people turning into bugs, Beckett’s Unnameable – how does one describe that premise? (Given the title of Ferris’ book, there must be some connection.)

    I’m not saying Ferris’ novel is great, but the conclusion you quoted seemed to be odd – that he overcame his ‘material’ or basic premise. My take on the book is quite the opposite. This was actually great ‘material’ – a great premise – and Ferris failed to do enough with it. (I’d say this of Lightman’ novel as well). Ferris’ book seemed sort of dumbed down, unfortunately sentimentalized in places and just too middlebrow. I got the sense the book could have been so much more – and I even got the sense Ferris wanted to do more with it, but felt constrained with MFA style middlebrow constraints.

    As far as the parallels with Lightman’s novel, they both are full situated in a family dynamic. We see how the condition affects the family and the condition also serves as a metaphor (to some degree) for some of the existing problems within the family dynamic. However, Lightman wrote his book in the middle of the internet boom and connected his character’s illness to the information overload and dependency that was being produced by the intrusion of technology in every area of modern life. There are also definite connections between the Diagnosis and Kafka’s Trail. Lightman even modeled (mimicked?) the first line of the Diagnosis on the Trial.

  8. gaskella said,

    I actually quite enjoyed his first book – primarily as I recognised parts from where I used to work years ago though. Given yours and other reviews, this one is sounding irresistible.

  9. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments everyone. EG, you’re quite right: in my keenness to splice in that third party view of The Diagnosis, I got it sort of back to front. As indicated in my post, I think the weakness with The Unnamed (apart from the writing in places) was Ferris’s insistence on grounding it in a contemporary, recognisable world – perhaps something like your complaints of sentimentality and middlebrow qualities (what’s MFA?). It’s actually in the last third, when he begins to detach from that model, that the book in my view comes into its own.

    Thanks for the info on The Diagnosis too. Sometimes I think almost everything can be connected back to Kafka. The book I’m currently reading, Peter Stephan Jungk’s The Inheritance, has a chapter titled ‘Before the Law’ and a distinctly ‘Kafkaesque’ (inverted commas used advisedly) premise: a man who knows he is entitled to inherit an estate but is tied up in knots trying to acquire his bequest. It also has an epigraph by Peter Handke, another European I keep meaning to read, and is translated by Michael ‘Stefan Zweig threw my schoolbag into the showers’ Hofmann.

    Nicole, I read this book a few months ago, so I have been keeping an eye on reviews since it came out in the US earlier this year. I’ve seen at least two others who quoted the ‘battleship’ line negatively (as I did), though if others liked it, then I suppose it just goes to prove something ending in disputandum.

    kimbofo, the comparison with The Time Traveler’s Wife (which I hated) is an interesting one, which didn’t occur to me – perhaps because my reading was mostly from Tim’s point of view rather than his family’s.

  10. trish said,

    Interesting take. I went to see Ferris when he came as close to my area as he was going to get, and he said his purpose in the book was to explore what happens when you take away what defines a person, namely, the routine of work. I’m sure I just related that poorly, but I thought it was an interesting concept, because to be honest that’s not what I got from the book. For me, the book was more about Tim and Jane’s marriage, and the lengths to which they would go for each other (or not go, as the case may be).

    All that to say, I appreciate your perspective because it’s not one that I’ve heard as of yet.

  11. John Self said,

    Thanks trish – both our views just go to show that the author’s intentions are of limited relevance. Or as Philip Roth put it, “When you publish a book, it’s the world’s book. The world edits it.”

  12. EG said,

    MFA is ‘Master of Fine Arts’ – the degree that US universities award in creative writing graduate programs. Ferris has one from the highly regarded program at UC Irvine. MFA programs are controversial for their role in promoting certain middlebrow styles/voices in contemporary American fiction – in a way that many find dogmatic or fetishistic (Carver-esque minimalism, Chekovian epiphany from minutia, the manic pop-culture laden cleverness of Foster-Wallace/Pynchon etc. to name a few.) And MFA grads are notorious for producing lines like the ‘battleship’ sentence you mentioned.

  13. leyla said,

    Well, I’ll stand out on a limb and say I enjoyed Then We Came To The End. I found it funny, unusual and intelligently written. I haven’t read The Unnamed yet. I wonder if Tim’s urge to keep wandering away from his family is accompanied by withdrawal from his family, or any other symptoms/signs of depression? People with endogenous depression can have an urge to escape, as Paul Morley demonstrated in his autobiographical novel around ten years ago. In that book it was an accepted behaviour for his father to wander off for days at a time throughout Paul M’s childhood, and have to be picked up by his wife years later. It was, in retrospect, a symptom of depression and he eventually killed himself.
    I haven’t read the Alan Lightman book you mention but as you suggest, mental angst can cause all sorts of physical ailments and unusual behaviour.

    As for the examples you give of Ferris’s occasionally unusual prose (“Overcast was riveted to the sky as grey to a battleship”; “Futility made off with his heart”), I seem to recall his previous novel attempted to occasionally use similarly unusual/original language. I think it’s his way of knowingly stating that he dislikes hackneyed cliches such as the metaphor ‘the sky was a grey battleship’ or the smile ‘the sky was like a grey battleship.’ It’s quirky, a bit self-conscious and probably something he’ll grow out of as most young writers outgrow their more obviously overwrough attempts to be smart.

    • leyla said,

      Oops, that should have read Morley’s wife would be contacted to pick him up days later – not years.

  14. Just read this review
    and think that I just might give this book a read.

    Beaut xxxx

  15. Yvann said,

    I really enjoyed Then We Came to the End – like those who have been positive about it above, the description of office life really struck a chord with me.

    I found the Unnamed very passionate and a good read too – until the final walk on which he seems to end up in some bizarre mental state.

    And I hadn’t spotted the parallels with TTTW (about which I am ambivalent) but they are definitely there, so good spot Kimbofo!

  16. […] Ferris’s website Some other reviews of The Unnamed: The Asylum; The Book Lady’s Blog; Reading Matters. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Sean […]


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