Joshua Ferris's first novel, Then We Came to the End, garnered heaps of praise, including the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. His second, The Unnamed, indicates that Ferris is a talented writer in need of more control.
The basis of The Unnamed is original: Tim Farnsworth, a successful Manhattan lawyer and happily married man, suffers from a malady that flares up occasionally and causes him to drop his life and walk. Yes, walk.
As a partner in his prominent law firm, Tim has amassed considerable wealth, so when the "unnamed" strikes and his life collapses into putting one foot in front of the other, his wife Jane and daughter Becka do not have the financial concerns that most people would have. But material comfort is little solace when Tim is overcome by the compulsion to walk. Money enables Tim to consult with specialists around the world, but no one can figure out what is wrong with him or how to stop the walking, short of handcuffing him to a bed, an extreme measure which is used but which still doesn't stop Tim from walking on the spot.
The "unnamed" demolishes any semblance of normal family life. Jane and Becka spend their days and nights looking for Tim, trying to rescue him from death as the walking involves constant movement until Tim drops from exhaustion. He walks in extreme weather, he walks without nourishment, he walks without destination. He cannot help himself.
Ferris reveals the unravelling of Tim's life with tenderness and compassion. Naturally Jane and Becka are profoundly affected, and one of Tim's many concerns is the damage his malady is doing to them. Another overwhelming concern is ignorance of what it is that afflicts him. Until the walking begins, Tim's outlook on life is positive: "Before he got sick, he was under the illusion that he needed only to seek help from the medical community, and then all that American ingenuity, all that researched enlightenment, would bring about his inalienable right to good health." But as Tim learns, such a right does not exist, and some problems cannot be solved.
After yet another series of tests, the results are unhelpful: "There was neither positive proof of mental illness nor the negative confirmation of a medical disease. It was more of the same, exactly what he feared - greater inconclusiveness, additional absence of evidence, the final barrier removed from boundless interpretation. He was anything anyone wanted him to be - a nutcase, a victim, a freak, a mystery."
Ferris lays out a direct connection between Tim's malady and Jane's own breakdown. The love between husband and wife is palpable. They care about each other deeply, and they enjoy passion when they can. But when Tim starts to walk, Jane is driven nearly mad with fear for his safety. It's impossible to think that anyone could endure such a situation forever.
The novel walks its own line between reality and chimera. Tim succumbs to hallucinations at times, and Ferris sets them up so that readers cannot initially be sure what is real and what is a product of Tim's fevered mind. John Cheever's story The Swimmer kept coming into my mind: It's another look at upper middle-class American life and how things can go so wrong, and it also mixes reality, confusion and madness.
The walking - the "unnamed" - may be allegorical. The fragmentation of personality and family is not unique and can be expressed in many ways. And problems are often confusing and mysterious. But too often this novel suffers from purposeless verbal pirouettes. Ferris's descriptions tend to the overwrought or incomprehensible: "Minor mountain banks of greasy snow sat in front of the residential gates, in their valleys a paste of dead leaves or a patch of frozen earth. Cracked snow thin as flint covered the yards. More snow capped the red-brick gateposts. The NBA star's house was gaudy even at dawn, lit up with faux gas lamps like some Frank Lloyd Wright spacecraft." Frequently I had the feeling that Ferris did not picture the images he was trying to create - if he had, he would have changed them. Describing Tim as "ridiculously horse-healthy and aging with the grace of a matinee idol" is just plain silly, given Tim's condition.
But The Unnamed tackles important issues imaginatively. Ferris delves into the fundamentals of what it means to be a human being in this world with all the attendant complications of career, love, parenthood and, ultimately, selfhood. The novel is a flawed experiment, but a worthwhile one.
Candace Fertile teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria, BC.