THE UNNAMED by Joshua Ferris

Book Quote:

“The long matrimonial haul was accomplished in cycles. One cycle of bad breath, one cycle of renewed desire, a third cycle of breakdown and small avoidances, still another of plays and dinners that spurred a conversation between them late at night that reminded her of their like minds and the pleasure they took in each other’s talk. And then back to hating him for not taking out the garbage on Wednesday. That was the struggle. Sickness and death, caretaking, the martyrdom of matrimony—that was fluff stuff. When the vows kick in, you don’t even blink. You just do.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (JAN 18, 2010)

Two years ago Joshua Ferris created quite the splash in the literary circuit. His debut novel Then We Came to the End deservedly won all kinds of literary acclaim including a spot on the list of finalists for the National Book Award. An equally compelling follow-up to such a high-flying debut is difficult to execute but Ferris has achieved just that with his new novel—The Unnamed.

The primary player in the novel is no person or place but a disease. It’s a vexing, scary, disorder that takes over Tim Farnsworth’s life completely yet it is one that has not been cataloged by modern science. Hence, “The Unnamed.” As a result of his disease, Tim is prone to sudden and compulsive fits of walking—at any time, any place, for any length of time. While such a description sounds tame on paper, imagine walking out when you’re in the middle of your job, when you’re watching a movie, eating or cooking a meal. The suddenness and arbitrariness of these spells means Tim has to be forever equipped with a backpack for basic survival. When the walking stops, he drifts off to sleep or calls his long-suffering wife Jane, who picks him up at all odd hours of the night from places much removed from the upscale neighborhood the family lives in.

As the novel opens, Tim has been free of these attacks for a while and Jane is in remission from cancer. Yet in just two pages, the attacks are back and the family including their teenage daughter, Becka, must face familiar horrors again.

A successful lawyer who is a partner at a prestigious law firm in New York, Tim Farnsworth tries to hide the disease from his colleagues at work. For one thing, he reasons, fellow lawyers would never understand the peculiarities of his particular condition and would instead deem him incapable of work. This would be especially frustrating because he is in the middle of a homicide case where the company’s client has been wrongfully convicted of murder. The attacks restart at a most inconvenient time—just when Tim is deep in work trying to prove his client’s innocence.

Ferris beautifully describes Tim’s frustrations with the disease—at not being able to pin it down with any real precision. “You hate it when people say this is something all in your head. You place great importance on having your condition regarded as a legitimate physical malfunction, something that members of the medical establishment …must take seriously,” Ferris writes. It’s an indication of just how much he struggles with it that Tim even once longs for a more potent disease, cancer. At least, he thinks it had “the power, the enviable, unlucky power, of a fatal and familiar disease.”

Ferris is a master at fleshing out his characters and here too he shines. Tim, Jane, their daughter Becka are painted in the most realistic of ways and you feel utterly moved by their plight. Perhaps the most beautiful portrait of all in the book though, is one of a marriage—that between Tim and Jane.

Understandably Tim’s disease pushes and tests the marriage to its breaking point. Every nuance of thought that nags at Tim, and especially Jane, is so utterly well rendered, it will just blow you away. There is one superb scene where on a routine shopping trip to the grocery store, Jane runs into a really good-looking man. Her reaction—one where she quietly contemplates just walking out of the store with this man and restarting her life—is one that unnerves her but will wow the reader with its utterly believable precision. Jane, Ferris reminds us, is human and frail, with real desires and weaknesses.

In fact, as The Unnamed shows us, every marriage is filled with such crucial tests—it’s how we react to them that shines a mirror on a marriage’s strength. A marriage is not all cuddles and love but hundreds of decisions made afresh every day to stay together—to be bound together, no matter what. It is The Unnamed’s look at family that will make its mark on readers—it’s one of the best portrayals of a contemporary marriage that I have read in a long time.

One will find it easy to root for all the characters, especially Jane. Ferris writes a pitch-perfect description of why she takes up work: “She wanted what he (Tim) had, something that would not abandon her to her own devices upon his recovery. She needed a purpose not entirely predicated upon other people, loved ones, the taking care of loved ones. She earned her license and started selling real estate.”

Eventually, as the walking fits get more frequent Tim decides he must leave home and walk away from the family—he can’t subject his wife and daughter to this uncertainty endlessly. He takes to the road and travels across states falling desperately ill and still managing to call home to report back to base once in a while.

Ferris who used voices—the “we” to great effect in his debut plays with it somewhat here too. In the end, after weeks on the road, as Tim gets increasingly delusional from walking he starts hearing voices and they play out on paper. It is this part of the book that gets to be a tad shaky though—where Ferris tries to prove that even in a life stripped of much material goods, one still needs the solid anchor of family.

In the end, The Unnamed is a solid and powerful follow-up to Ferris’ Then We Came to the End. It amply cements Ferris’ status as one America’s most gifted young novelists—here is another writer who is no one-hit wonder.

What The Unnamed shares with Ferris’ earlier book is the light it casts on players caught in the middle of a situation beyond their control—there is something very fresh and “today” about the characters’ circumstances and their reactions.

Much has been said about the slow decline of the quality of contemporary American fiction. Yet writers like Joshua Ferris prove that there’s much to be grateful for. Though Ferris’ story themes are as old as storytelling itself—Then We Came to the End looked at work, The Unnamed looks at marriage—there’s something very “now” about his lens, his style of storytelling. Through his astute and yes, hip, handling of narrative, Ferris has emerged as an extremely talented writer—an expert chronicler of our complicated, contemporary times.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 161 readers
PUBLISHER: Reagan Arthur Books; 1 edition (January 18, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Joshua Ferris
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


January 18, 2010 · Judi Clark · 2 Comments
Tags:  Â· Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Allegory/Fable, Contemporary, Family Matters

2 Responses

  1. Kirstin - January 22, 2010

    An excellent review of a challenging novel. Your choice of introductory quote gives a perfect synopsis of where Tim and Jane stood in the early part of this book. The realness of their marriage (something that I don’t think many novels capture well even when they try) makes them a couple for whom there is so much reason to root, as you noted. This might well end up on my “Favorite Books Published in 2010” list.

  2. poornima - January 25, 2010

    Thanks, Kirstin! Josh Ferris is such a great writer — his prose really crackles with energy. I thought the latter half of the book was less tight but overall the book was fun. If you liked this one, you’ll LOVE A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY by Lauren Grodstein. I’ve been pressing that one on all my friends :)

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