It’s invigorating to see a new author you like overcome the sophomore slump. Even better is when they make you forget that the sophomore slump is even a convention.
I was a fan of Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End, which read like a dark, somewhat existential novelization of The Office. It felt like I was in the hands of a very capable writer, but it only hinted at the guy’s potential. He needed to tackle something huge, and The Unnamed, with its premise and possibility, is something huge.
Tim is a partner in a high-powered law firm, and he suffers from a condition where, at any given moment, he begins walking and cannot stop until he passes out from exhaustion. His wife keeps him packed and suited up for the elements outside, and she must pick him up from the strange places he ends up, like a KFC or a hair salon in the ghetto. As you’d imagine, she’s suffering a nasty case of caretaker burnout.
Nothing works–he must continue walking. They’ve tried handcuffing him to the bed, which for Tim is an ordeal of both physical and psychic torture.
You’re inevitably drawn into the mystery of what’s behind Tim’s illness. “A country full of experts,” as he bitterly complains, fail at every turn to diagnose him. But you! You,the adept literary theorist, will have an answer, you’re certain. This is one way the story draws you in.
Is it the body, or the brain, or the mind? The soul? Is he unconsciously fleeing his life, or is he seeking something? Or is his need to simply stay in motion? Ferris doesn’t give you the answer, but you’ll probably feel that you’re given enough clues to form a confident diagnosis if you try.
Feet Don’t Fail Me Now
The first half of the book feels simple, even underwritten. Its focus is the disintegration of Tim’s family, career, and life of privilege–essentially the consequences of such a strange affliction. Interesting, sure, but not yet delivering.
In the second half the story explodes. It’s spellbinding. Tim’s sickness reaches critical mass and has him shambling cross country, a deranged derelict. He is Lear in the storm, spouting constitutional statutes of civil liberties while wearing a “Happy Thanksgiving” sweater he’d bought from a convenience store and deteriorating like a leper from the unchecked frostbite.
Yeah, Forrest Gump this ain’t. Tim is brought to the edge of death again and again, and he begins thinking of his body as an adversary, “the other”:
Without God, the body won, and that couldn’t be possible. He was one thing, his body a different thing altogether, and he was willing a separation, in which he went off to eternal repair while it suffered its due fate of rough handling, dirt, and rot.
There’s still humor here, albeit blacker than oil. One of Tim’s hands, which has lost every finger except his thumb and pinkie, is described to be “fixed in a permanent expression of hang loose, dude.”
The immediate power of the book, though, lies in its tragedy. A reunion scene in a Waffle House is so pathetically heart wrenching–partly because it’s at a Waffle House, for God’s sake–that I shook the hardcover in my hands, “Stop it, Book, stop it! You’re hurting me.”
Not everyone will get The Unnamed, but if you ask something like “wouldn’t multiple sclerosis or ALS have done the trick?” you’ve outed yourself as a real thick. Here’s a novel that touts references to the likes of Samuel Beckett and Emily Dickinson and itself lives up to a high literary standard. It’s challenging and harrowing to the nth, and, as Dickinson said about good poetry, takes the top of your head off.
This Ferris guy, he is the real deal.