Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

As The Unnamed begins, Tim Farnsworth is making his way home, exhausted and confused. He's going to lose it all, he thinks. His beautiful house, the comfort of a bath, his family. He was forced out of the building, he tells his wife Jane wearily when he gets home. We, the readers, think perhaps he's been fired, but Jane knows it's far worse than that. Tim walks. He doesn't walk for his health or to enjoy a beautiful day; he doesn't even walk to get where he's going. It's not a constant thing, but when the compulsion comes upon him he is slave to it. He leaves in the middle of a conversation with a client, he walks out of the courtroom when he's at trial, he gets up out of bed, and he walks, regardless of the weather or his state of dress or undress.

Tim and Jane have been dealing with this thing, this illness, this condition, this compulsion, for years, now. It is, in fact, their third go round, and they're as ready as they can be. Jane fills Tim's emergency pack with supplies--power bars, lip balm, cold weather gear, a GPS device--and places it by the front door, hoping against hope that he'll grab it when he's walked out the door. If he remembers to turn on the GPS she can track him as he walks. If not, he will call her before he collapses in exhaustion at the end. Either way, she will drop what she's doing and bring him home.

The grim opening sequence is actually the start of a beautiful and moving story of love and loss and loyalty, a story which perfectly captures the way life moves along, unyielding, towing us with it whether we understand what's happening or not. The novel is relentless and bleak, but it's also staggeringly, sometimes painfully, beautiful, as Tim and Jane and their daughter Becka cycle through bouts of the disease, moving forward--and sometimes regressing--in their methods of dealing with it. Jane is long-suffering, though hardly a saint, Becka is at first sullen and embarrassed, later compassionate. All three are uncomprehending and bewildered.

Joshua Ferris' narrative is circular and repetitive, and far more questions are raised for the characters--what is the nature of love? of marriage? what must a family endure? does our identity lie in our actions, in our body, in our mind?--than they can possibly answer. And yet, once again, such is life. The Unnamed is definitely not for everyone. It's not humorous like his brilliant first novel, Then We Came To the End, although there are occasional flashes of humor. But if it speaks to you, you will certainly love The Unnamed.


Jenny O. said...

Lovely review. I've been meaning to read this one, since I heard it was brilliant, but I didn't know what it was about. Thanks:)

Rebecca Glenn said...

I hope you like it Jenny, and I hope you'll let me know. I feel very protective of this novel, because it seems to inspire very extreme reactions--some, like me, adore it, but some seem to truly loathe it.

Greg Zimmerman said...

Nice review - you capture the essence of the book very well! I was lukewarm on this too - what exactly was the "walking disease" supposed to symbolize? The limits of marriage? Something else? That question kept bugging me, and I'm not sure I am able to answer it adequately.

TheBookGirl said...

I have to confess to being very depressed by this book; maybe because it was such a departure from Then we came to the end...your review is wonderful, though, and I can understand how this book could arouse strong emotions :)