I was suitably impressed with Joshua Ferris’ debut novel, And Then We Came to the End, which was something of a black comedy. Its sometimes-serious contents were often overshadowed by the possibilities for humor or darksome whimsy when writing about an office environment, a subject which probably gained its cultural penchant for public mockery with the rise of the Dilbert comic strip.
I was surprised—though I clearly should not have been—how much Ferris’ sophomore effort, The Unnamed differed. Stripped of the inherently satirical context, Ferris’ writing is actually quite bleak—in fact, I don’t believe it is an exaggeration to say that this new book is one of the saddest and most depressing pieces of literature I have read in recent memory.
The protagonist is Tim Farnsworth, a workaholic partner at a prestigious law firm, who suffers from an unknown and unnamed affliction which enters its third occurrence at the beginning of the novel. Tim, during these spans, is seized by the need to walk; it comes without warning, and he is unable to stop himself or even divert long enough to grab his coat. He will walk out of meetings, or out of restaurants, out of his house—out into the coldest of winters, inappropriately tired, and walk until his body physically gives out and he collapses into an exhausted sleep.
A slew of doctors can’t figure out what’s wrong with him, and though Tim maintains stubbornly that the affliction is purely physical and not a product of mental illness, no remedies seem to work. Like cancer—which, incidentally, his wife Jane suffers from sporadically—the affliction can go into remission, sometimes for years. The usual tactic is to strap Tim into a bed, rub lotion on his bedsores, and not let him up until the affliction has subsided… as many as 27 months later. The alternative is losing fingers from frostbite, walking into busy traffic, and being molested during exhausted sleep by nefarious characters. In either case, Tim’s professional life suffers and his personal life is strained to the breaking point.
Don’t hold your breath to find out some revelation about Tim’s disease: I can tell you without spoiling much that it is not forthcoming, as you might intuit from Ferris’ choice of title. Then, too, it becomes increasingly obvious that despite Tim’s protestations, the disease appears to be entirely psychological, and as the book progresses the readers inevitably come to one conclusion: either Tim is already mad, or the disease makes him so. The devolution is apparent not just in the descriptions of Tim, but Ferris’ language, which becomes near to a frenzy of stream-of-consciousness at times, kind of like The Stones of Summer.
Tim’s madness, affliction, or plight is merely mechanical, however. At most, the nature of the disease—impulse walking away—is a tenuous metaphor for the workaholic man who fails to make appropriate time for his wife and daughter. More interesting is Tim’s relationship with said wife and daughter (Jane and Becka, respectively), whose various dedication and scorn, as well as Tim’s reciprocal insouciance or sadness, form the primary conflict of the book. Though Tim may struggle internally with the vagaries of a disease he cannot control and does not understand, he is conflicted far more by his ambiguous relationship with his family, which Ferris implies was not particularly wholesome even before the disease struck. The theme which Ferris is trying to explore is the tendency or latent desire to eschew responsibility: in this case, literally walks away from everything he knows, protesting all along that it must be his damned legs—that he’s helpless against the forces which take him away. The readers, awash in dramatic irony, know that this isn’t so. Tim succumbs metaphorically to the ravages of a strange psychological disorder, but on a more mundane level he succumbs to a practiced and effective ignorance, turning entirely inward and regressing to a state of disorder more closely resembling that of Fight Club.
My criticism of this approach is that it’s a little too easy to make Tim a gibbering mess; the parallels between the stresses and temptations of family life and Ferris’ constructed disorder are both plainly obvious and slightly askew, to the extent that whatever theme was being explored ended up lost someplace. By the end, The Unnamed has turned into a rhetorically-savvy version of Death of a Salesman, starting bleak and ending even moreso. One could, therefore, apply the same argument to the former that Edith Hamilton applied to the latter: tragedies which merely descend into hopelessness and despair have little to recommend them as literature. This was a problem I encountered last year with The Death of Bunny Munro, which at least had a modicum of comic relief.
This is why I call The Unnamed one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. There’s no happy ending, no resolution, no revelations, no age-acquired wisdom. It is a darksome list of terrible events which illustrates our physical and psychological frailty, populated with characters whose inner hearts remain foreign to us. It is, for all intents and purposes, a literary car accident: we slow down to gawk as we pass by it, transfixed by the gore and the innate fascination of morbidity, but there is no transcendent beauty to it. Ferris is a writer of beautiful prose, but I can’t help but be confused and disappointed with this new story that he’s created. I don’t have the stomach for it, or I’m perhaps missing some essential component of The Unnamed that makes it a masterpiece; either way, I find it difficult to recommend the book very enthusiastically.