Monday, January 25, 2010

The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris

Nearly 20 years ago I experienced the Sunday edition of The New York Times for the first time. I will never forget it. The primary cover story was about the Supreme Court and the Opinion section ran a Peggy Noonan column. While my consistency of reading The Times has ebbed and flowed with the duties of life, my enthusiasm for the publication has never waned. When I have the time, I always find the Book Review section first. I am awestruck with the reviewers, and have put them on a pedestal with the understanding that I would never be fit to ask them the time of day, let alone disagree with one of their reviews. They are, after all, the ultimate authorities of knowing what makes a book good and what makes a book bad. What follows is a review that goes against every grain of my being for two reasons. The first reason is that I never read a book review on a book that I plan on reviewing. I broke my rule this past Sunday, and I can't say that I regret it. The second reason this review is unnerving is that I'm going to disagree - vehemently - with The Times' review of The Unnamed.

The Unnamed is Joshua Ferris's second book. I am a huge fan of his first novel and couldn't wait to tear into this one. The Unnamed is about Tim Farnsworth, an enormously successful attorney who finds himself with a debilitating condition that causes him to walk. He is unable to keep himself from walking and only stops when his body collapses in complete exhaustion. His walks are described this way: "The path itself was one of peaks and valleys, hot and cold in equal measure, rock, sedge and rush, the coil of barbed wire around a fence post, the wind boom of passing semis, the scantness and the drift." The condition is one that numerous medical professionals are unable to diagnose, despite numerous efforts. They can't even determine if it is an abnormal mental condition that causes him to walk so much. His walking episodes occur randomly, but the ones that occur in the dead of winter throughout the night prove extremely dangerous. He loses some toes and fingers from frostbite, and that is just the beginning. The condition destroys his career, his body, and his mind. It also tests the resolve of his family to remain faithful to him.

Jay McInerney reviewed The Unnamed last Sunday. He didn't like it, though he is a fan of Ferris's first novel. In his review he says, "In fact, it's difficult to believe that The Unnamed and Then We Came to the End came from the same laptop." McInerney doesn't like the fact that this book was so different from Ferris's first. While I would agree that the books are different (this one is dark, the first is hilarious), Ferris beautifully articulates in both novels how people feel when they are dealing with a debilitating illness. He writes about it so well that I can only assume he has watched loved ones deal with similar situations. So, in that regard, the two novels are remarkably similar.

Mr. McInerney says that he does not see the point in The Unnamed: "What does it mean? Tim's affliction might be a metaphor for addiction, for careerism, for any compulsion that drives a man or woman to leave family and community and health behind. A preacher tells Tim near the end of his travels that not everything can be explained by reason - which seems like a mundane lesson for such a grueling course of study." I do not think this book was written primarily as a metaphor for those things at all. The point of the book was to give readers a close look at marriage.

Jane, Tim's wife, tirelessly tries to help him find a cure for his unnamed syndrome. Once it becomes clear that a cure will not be found, she does everything possible to help him cope with the condition so that he stays safe; "She was his support staff and counsel." At great personal cost, she becomes a slave to Tim's condition. Regarding Jane, the narrator tells the reader that, "Anger with God was a tired and useless emotion, anger with God was so terrestrial and neutering. She thought she had arrived at a peaceful negotiation but in fact it was only a dormancy and when her anger at God met her at the end of the drive she was exhausted." Jane is a main character in the book, and my insides were ripped to painful shreds as I watched her choose to sit and watch her husband walk. She struggles with wanting an easier life. Even when Tim tells her to leave and move on, she tries but simply cannot. She worries for Tim, not out of obligation, but out of a self-sacrificial love that is not generally found in the Hollywood story lines that seem to have defined love in our culture.

If Mr. McInerney needs a metaphor, I could read one into this novel. We are all walking, aren't we? Toward something, away from something, but we are all figuratively walking. Ultimately, this book is about marriage (and maybe Mr. McInerney missed this because he isn't married). While the novel is very dark and lacks redemption, it is a thought-provoking and insightful look at how a marriage survives "in sickness" and " for worse". It is a beautifully painted picture of love that goes beyond romance or even duty. If you read it, you'll ask yourself if you have Jane's resolve. You'll ask yourself if you have ever seen someone love like Jane loves. And when you read the following passage from The Unnamed, you may stop and wonder just what marriage is all about.

"They say it takes a long time to really get to know somebody. They say a good marriage requires work. They say it's important to change alongside your partner to avoid growing apart. They talk about patience, sacrifice, compromise, tolerance. It seems the goal of these bearers of conventional wisdom is to get back to zero. They would have you underwater, tethered by chains to the bow of a ship full of treasure now sunk, struggling to free yourself to make it to the surface. With luck he will free himself, too, and then you can bob along together, scanning the horizon for some hint of land. They say boredom sets in, passion dissipates, idiosyncrasies start to grate, and the same problems repeat themselves. Why do you do it? Security, family, companionship. Ideally you do it for love. There's something they don't elaborate on. They just say the word and you're supposed to know what it means, and after twenty years of marriage, you are held up as exemplars of that simple foundation, love, upon which (with sweeping arms) all this is built. But don't let appearances fool you. That couple with twenty years still fights, they still go to bed angry, they still let days pass without --
The trouble with these cheap bromides, she thought, is that they don't capture the half of it."


  1. You tremble to differ with the NYT. I tremble to question Ms. Civil Thoughts. Especially not having read the book. But...

    Perhaps we work with a different definition of 'redemption'. Perhaps we confuse redemption with resolution. Perhaps the issues and struggles raised in the book are not resolved. But that is life. And yet, without resolution, there is redemption. If I hear you correctly, you have a marriage in which one partner is saying, "Leave." And yet the other partner sacrificially stays and commits and fulfills her vows. If that isn't redemption, I don't know what is.

    Maybe I'm not capturing the half of it....

  2. Thanks for the review. This looks like an intriguing book and I am anticipating reading it. Have to go put a hold on it at the library :-)

  3. Randy,

    No, we aren't working with a different definition of redemption. I simply chose the wrong word. You are absolutely correct. I should have said that the novel lacks resolution, and not that it lacks redemption. This book does not wrap things up in a pretty package. There is no satisfying resolution; Tim's condition doesn't go away, nor does Jane win some award for being a faithful wife. But Jane's commitment to fulfill her vows is certainly a beautiful picture of redemption, beyond a shadow of a doubt. That is precisely why I loved the book. Redemption vs. resolution is more than just semantics. Thanks for pointing this out to me.

  4. Domestic,

    Don't you love it when you can reserve these new books at the library? Ah, the little joys in life...


  5. When I've tried to reserve books at the library, I'm typically 127th in line, and if I wait long enough (16 years, on average) I get the call about 100 pages into a different book, which I then have to put on hold, because I am under a time restriction to retrieve and then read the reserved book. Glad it works for others! (Truth be told, I'm just addicted to book ownership.)