An Aimless Walk With An 'Unnamed' Destination

Book Cover of 'The Unnamed'
The Unnamed
By Joshua Ferris
Hardcover, 320 pages
Reagan Arthur Books
List price: $24.99
Read An Excerpt

In his darkly comic 2007 debut novel, Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris adopted a first-person-plural narrator ("We didn't know who was stealing things from other people's workstations") to evoke the jargon-rich groupthink of office culture at the dawning of the 21st century. It could have, and perhaps should have, come off as gimmicky and self-conscious, but Ferris showed himself to be entirely in control of his gifts, deploying a series of drastic but deft tonal shifts that kept his extended narrative experiment fresh throughout. Readers of that promising, award-winning work will recall how, for example, Ferris briefly abandoned the corporate "we" to present a slim chapter from the point of view of an office worker dying from breast cancer. That sober and deeply affecting section served to color the novel around it, imbuing Ferris' showy comic gymnastics with an emotional center, a weight it would have otherwise lacked.

So it's both surprising and disappointing that Ferris would follow up such a substantive, complex and tonally variegated accomplishment with The Unnamed, a slimmer and considerably slighter effort. Also surprising: That Ferris' weighty subjects — the disconnect between mind and body, and the distrustful truce that exists between the individual and society — could produce a novel so feathery and abstract.

Tim Farnsworth is a partner at a highly successful Manhattan law firm with a wife and teenage daughter, a house in the suburbs and no money worries to speak of. The reader meets him at the onset of a mysterious condition that has beset him twice before: a sudden and overpowering compulsion to walk incessantly until he collapses from exhaustion. The nature of this illness stymies physician and psychiatrist alike, and Tim's desperate need to find someone to diagnose his condition — and thus clinically justify his physically and psychically punishing travails — provide the novel's early chapters with its recognizable human immediacy. So, too, does Tim's steely but ultimately doomed resolve that his illness will not keep him from defending an important client, or from his loving family.

Author Joshua Ferris i i

Joshua Ferris is also the author of the novel Then We Came to the End. Nina Subin hide caption

itoggle caption Nina Subin
Author Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris is also the author of the novel Then We Came to the End.

Nina Subin

Here, in the early going, Ferris lays out the stakes. We watch Tim's wife, Jane, lock into a practiced, protective mode at the news that his condition has returned: She prepares a backpack with a first-aid kit and GPS, she rubs his face with Vaseline, she dresses him in wicking socks and waterproof boots. Small, tender moments like this one fully enflesh Ferris' central conceit and make it much more than a high-minded metaphor for the modern condition. But as the novel progresses and Tim's condition takes complete control, Ferris lets what we want to say about alienation and anomie supersede his characters and the way they navigate the world.

Granted, he does it cleverly, as when he neatly captures postmodern alienation from the self with a line or two: "He looked down at his legs. It was like watching footage of legs walking from the point of view of the walker." Or when pithily describing a bout with depression: "She ... needed a new life. She needed to start over with new teeth and fresh underwear."

But like its protagonist, The Unnamed moves resolutely forward with a fixed, trancelike purposelessness. Eventually the novel resolves into a chronicle of losses, big and small — Tim sinks further into an illness that robs him of his job and his family (and more than a few digits, to frostbite.) But Ferris asserts every one of these losses, whether interpersonal or anatomic, using the same blank, affectless tone. The reader's attention isn't directed, events aren't assigned differing psychological weight, so the emotional through-line becomes obscure; a succession of moments and abstract images simply mount up. That's why, by the time we arrive at Ferris' beautifully written but ultimately unearned ending, the experience of reading The Unnamed has already begun to lift off of us, like a vivid but obtuse dream.

Excerpt: 'The Unnamed'

The Unnamed
The Unnamed
By Joshua Ferris
Hardcover, 320 pages
Reagan Arthur Books
List price: $24.99

THE FEET, MECHANICAL

1

It was the cruelest winter. The winds were rabid off the rivers. Ice came down like poisoned darts. Four blizzards in January alone, and the snowbanks froze into gray barricades as grim and impenetrable as anything in war. Tombstones were buried across the cemetery fields and cars parked curbside were swallowed undigested. The long- term debate about changing weather was put aside for immediate concern for the elderly and the shut-ins, while the children went weeks without school. Deliveries came to a halt and the warehouses clogged up on days the planes were approved to land. There were lines at the grocery store, short tempers, a grudging toward the burden of adjustment. Some clever public services addressed the civic concerns — heat shelters, volunteer home checks. The cold was mother of invention, a vengeful mother whose lessons were delivered at the end of a lash.

The ride home was slow going because of the snow and the traffic. He usually worked by eyelet light but this evening he brought no work home and sat in one quadrant of the car without file opened or pen in hand. They were waiting for him. They didn't know they were waiting for him. The driver had on 1010 WINS, traffic and transit on the ones. Somewhere, out to sea or in the South, it might not be snowing. Here it slanted into the windshield like white ash from a starburst. The frostbite had returned to his fingers and toes. He unbuckled the seat belt and leaned over, stretching his long torso across the backseat, and what the driver thought he didn't care. The sound of the radio faded as one ear was sealed up by the distressed leather and he put a hand on the floor mat and ran his tingling fingertips over the fibertrapped pebbles. He hadn't called to tell them. He had lost his phone. They were waiting for him, but they didn't know it.

The driver woke him when they reached the house.

He was going to lose the house and everything in it. The rare pleasure of a bath, the copper pots hanging above the kitchen island, his family — again he would lose his family. He stood just inside the door and took stock. Everything in it had been taken for granted. How had that happened again? 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. It was not likely one single moment. He set his keys on the table below the mirror and uncharacteristically took his shoes off on the long Persian runner, which he and Jane had bought in Turkey. They had spent a week in Turkey and a week in Egypt. They always had a trip in the works. Their next trip was a Kenyan safari but it would have to be postponed now. He walked through the house in his socks. Inside the kitchen he ran his hand along the dimly lit countertop. He loved his kitchen, the antique cupboard doors, the Moroccan tile backsplash. He walked through the dining room, where they hosted dinner parties for his firm. The long table sat twelve. He reached the stairs and put his hand on the oak newel and took one step after another. Family photographs made the ascent with him. The sound of the grandfather clock ticking away in the living room gave way to the television laughter issuing softly from the bedroom down the hall.

Jane was still beautiful. She was wearing a pair of reading glasses that had a Pop Art zaniness of character, teardrop frames polka- dotted with drops of primary color. Spaghetti straps revealed her slender arms and the nightgown held her firm breasts in place just below a freckled slate and an articulated clavicle. She was doing the crossword. Whenever she got stuck, she glanced up at the late show on the flat screen mounted to the wall and drummed the pen between upper and lower teeth, as if to waken her brain. She looked at him as he entered, surprised to see him home so early. "Hello, banana," she said. He took off his suit coat as if it were a T- shirt, thrusting the back over his head and turning his sleeves inside out. Then he found himself grabbing the hem, a hand on each half of the parted tail, and ripping the thing in two. Hard to break the seam at first, but once the first thread snapped, it went. Jane opened her mouth but nothing came out. He dropped the tattered coat and climbed onto the bed and hunkered down on his hands and knees like a man waiting for an explosion. "What is it?" she said. "Tim, what is it?" His head was lost inside his sheltering arms. "Tim?" She moved over to him and put her arms around him, hugging him from above as if they were about to engage in a wrestling match. "Tim?"

He told her that he had been forced out of the building and into the street. At 43rd and Broadway he hailed a cab, which he hoped would take him back to the office. After getting the cab to pull over, he reached out and opened the back door. But then he walked on. The driver, a Sikh in a pink turban, honked the horn, staring at him through the rearview mirror. Why would someone hail a cab and open the door only to keep walking? Near Union Square he had tried to call an ambulance, a recourse they had envisioned during his last recurrence. He was on the line with a dispatcher trying to explain the situation when he slipped on a patch of ice coming off a curb and lost his grip. "My phone!" he cried out as he regained his balance. "Somebody! My phone!" He walked on with a tweaked back. "Please get my phone!" Everyone ignored him. His BlackBerry had landed in the middle of the street where it lay defenseless against oncoming cars. He kept moving forward. He told her of all the city scaffolding he walked under, the manic traffic he managed to avoid, the parade of oblivious people he passed. He told her that he had turned tired in the old way by the time he reached a bench, somewhere near the East River, where his body gave out. How he had crumpled up his suit coat for a pillow and taken off his tie, sweating despite the cold. How he woke up in horror an hour later.

"It's back," he said.

From The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. Copyright 2010. Reprinted by permission of the publisher Reagan Arthur Books.

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