THE UNNAMED by Joshua Ferris
“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 otherâ€™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 matrimonyâ€”that was fluff stuff. When the vows kick in, you donâ€™t even blink. You just do.”
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 novelâ€”The Unnamed.
The primary player in the novel is no person or place but a disease. Itâ€™s a vexing, scary, disorder that takes over Tim Farnsworthâ€™s life completely yet it is one that has not been cataloged by modern science. Hence, â€śThe Unnamed.â€ť As a result of his disease, Tim is prone to sudden and compulsive fits of walkingâ€”at any time, any place, for any length of time. While such a description sounds tame on paper, imagine walking out when youâ€™re in the middle of your job, when youâ€™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 companyâ€™s client has been wrongfully convicted of murder. The attacks restart at a most inconvenient timeâ€”just when Tim is deep in work trying to prove his clientâ€™s innocence.
Ferris beautifully describes Timâ€™s frustrations with the diseaseâ€”at not being able to pin it down with any real precision. â€śYou 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 â€¦must take seriously,â€ť Ferris writes. Itâ€™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 â€śthe power, the enviable, unlucky power, of a fatal and familiar disease.â€ť
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 marriageâ€”that between Tim and Jane.
Understandably Timâ€™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 reactionâ€”one where she quietly contemplates just walking out of the store with this man and restarting her lifeâ€”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 testsâ€”itâ€™s how we react to them that shines a mirror on a marriageâ€™s strength. A marriage is not all cuddles and love but hundreds of decisions made afresh every day to stay togetherâ€”to be bound together, no matter what. It is The Unnamedâ€™s look at family that will make its mark on readersâ€”itâ€™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: â€śShe 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.â€ť
Eventually, as the walking fits get more frequent Tim decides he must leave home and walk away from the familyâ€”he canâ€™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 voicesâ€”the â€śweâ€ť 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 thoughâ€”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 Ferrisâ€™ Then We Came to the End. It amply cements Ferrisâ€™ status as one Americaâ€™s most gifted young novelistsâ€”here is another writer who is no one-hit wonder.
What The Unnamed shares with Ferrisâ€™ earlier book is the light it casts on players caught in the middle of a situation beyond their controlâ€”there is something very fresh and â€śtodayâ€ť about the charactersâ€™ 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 thereâ€™s much to be grateful for. Though Ferrisâ€™ story themes are as old as storytelling itselfâ€”Then We Came to the End looked at work, The Unnamed looks at marriageâ€”thereâ€™s something very â€śnowâ€ť about his lens, his style of storytelling. Through his astute and yes, hip, handling of narrative, Ferris has emerged as an extremely talented writerâ€”an expert chronicler of our complicated, contemporary times.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 161 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Reagan Arthur Books; 1 edition (January 18, 2010)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia page on Joshua Ferris|
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