February 25, 2010
Joshua Ferris: The Unnamed
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
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.