Reading The Unnamed, Joshua Ferris' second novel, is an intense, exhausting experience, just as living is for Tim Farnsworth, Ferris' main character. When the novel opens, Tim is a partner in a prestigious New York law firm who has just suffered a third recurrence of a strange affliction: periodically, he starts walking and cannot stop. The prior bouts of his disease – one that myriad specialists and scientists were unable to diagnose – wreaked havoc on his life for long periods at a time, but he eventually recovered and was able to resume his professional and personal lives.
The third recurrence of Tim's compulsion to walk is even more disruptive and debilitating than the others, and Ferris sets his novel at the start of the downward spiral that Tim follows when the walking comes back. Ferris shows how Tim loses his ability to work and how his relationship with his wife Jane and teenage daughter Becka are tested – to an extreme – by his erratic behavior and tendency to go missing for days – and eventually months - at a time.
The Unnamed explores the nature of mental illness (and in this case, its relationship with the physical body), as well as the limits of marital love and commitment. As Tim's condition gets more severe, he ultimately leaves Jane and Becka and just sets off walking, literally across the country, unable to stop or control his direction. Needless to say, exposure to extreme elements takes a serious toll on his body over the course of months and years, and he is periodically hospitalized for a range of organ failures, infections, and pscyhoses. His grasp on reality comes and goes, and he stays in intermittent touch with his wife and daughter, which tethers him tenuously to reality and his former life.
The Unnamed is a gripping read. It's not a consistent read, though. The first part of the book is almost like a thriller, while the middle gets repetitive with details of Tim's arduous journeys through physical and mental hell. The final third, where Tim tries to reconcile at last his condition with the life he left, is slightly easier to experience but no less sad.
I was one of the few who didn't like Ferris' first novel, Then We Came To The End. I liked The Unnamed better. I found Ferris' statements about modern work and family life more compelling this time around, and I do love his writing. I think I am still digesting The Unnamed. It's unrealistic in many ways (how could Tim walk that many miles and sleep in so many public places without being killed, attacked, mugged, etc.? for starters…), but I don't think Ferris was shooting for realism here. Here's a passage I liked about the mind-body tension:
At first his body was subject only to little local breakdowns, to infections and inflammations, to aches, cricks, tweaks, cramps, contusions, retentions, swellings, fevers, tinglings, hackings, spasms, limps, displacements, dizziness, stiffness, chafing, agitations, confusions, staggerings, spells of low blood sugar, and the normal wear and tear of age. Yet it persisted to function more or less with an all-hands-on-deck discipline. He was certain that it had a mind of its own, an unassailable cellular will. If it were not him that needed sleep, and a bit of food, it would not need him. It would walk without him, after his mind had dimmed and died. It would walk until it collapsed into a pile of whitened and terrigeneous bones.
I mostly listened to The Unnamed on audio, which I highly recommend. It was narrated by Ferris, and he's a great reader. I love listening to authors read their own works – who understands the words better than they do? Who else knows exactly where the emphasis lands in a sentence, and the tone of voice a character should take when talking to someone else?
So The Unnamed was kind of a mixed bag for me, but I am definitely glad I read it. (Oh hi, FTC! I guess that since the budget was sort-of-approved, your guidelines are still in effect. Since you asked… both the hard copy and the audiobook were courtesy of the DC Public Library).