Ferris Joshua

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
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.

Joshua Ferris: Then We Came to the End

Good novels that reflect the politics, repetition and futility of most people’s working lives are few and far between, and are most successful when they also deal with the other parts of the subject’s (inner or outer) life. Among the best of my experience are Magnus Mills’s The Restraint of Beasts, Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and Joseph Heller’s mesmeric masterpiece Something Happened. Concentrate solely on the working environment and you get something like Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, which was wildly entertaining for a quarter of its four hundred pages but ran out of steam long before it ran out of words. And this, unfortunately, is the model which Joshua Ferris has adopted with his debut novel Then We Came to the End: except for ‘wildly entertaining,’ read ‘mildly.’

In the acknowledgements Ferris credits as the source for his title, Don DeLillo’s Americana, and the comparison is invidious. DeLillo, while as much hated as loved, is a master stylist, and the style that Ferris has (no doubt intentionally) adopted for his story is the gossipy voice of trivia and minutiae. It’s set in a Chicago advertising agency and the USP is that the book is narrated in the first person plural – something I haven’t seen since The Virgin Suicides – although the ‘we’ of the book is really a tool to enable Ferris to fly omnisciently into all the employees’ experiences and actions. So the anecdotal style is seductive and pleasurable to begin with, but soon palls. It’s at its most amusing when the ‘creatives’ are working on an ad appealing for information on the missing daughter of one of their colleagues:

Genevieve dropped the image of the girl into Photoshop and started playing up the girl’s hair and freckles. [W]e feared that if she was washed out, people would look right past the flyer.

Genevieve didn’t lack for more suggestions. “Pump ‘MISSING’ up a little,” said Jim Jackers.

“And play up the $10,000 reward,” suggested Tom. “I don’t know how, just … use a different font or something.”

“And you have some kerning issues,” Benny reminded her from the sidelines.

We all wanted to help. Genevieve worked on it another hour, tweaking this and that, until someone recommended that she fix the little girl’s smile to be less crooked. Jessica would look prettier that way.

And in this vein the book is diverting enough for a time. We get the usual office scenarios: petty minded bureaucracy, the vexed question of who owns which chair, the desire to appear busy while doing as little work as possible, and the constant fear (justified or not) of lay-offs or, as Ferris puts it, ‘walking Spanish down the hall.’ It strains toward significance in touching on issues like obsession and grief, and aims for something slightly epic with a long time break toward the end, but it never really tickles the heart or makes the reader jump or start.

The best of the novel comes halfway through, with a break into the life of Lynn Mason, the ballbreaking boss of the agency who is rumoured to have been diagnosed with breast cancer. For a quiet, resolute chapter, Ferris breaks out of the first person plural, cuts the background babble and gives us a surprisingly affecting and effective portrait of a woman who daren’t risk losing control. Once normal service resumed after this, I hoped it might have an added resonance, or made richer from being informed by what went before: but it was business as usual.