The Unnamed

Joshua Ferris follows satirical debut “Then We Came to the End” with a dark novel about a man who cannot stop walking.

The Unnamed By Joshua Ferris Little, Brown 310 pp., $24.99

Everyone keeps telling Americans to get more exercise. But it’s safe to say that physicians probably don’t have Tim Farnsworth’s regimen in mind.
The Manhattan lawyer goes through bouts where he just gets up and walks out – on his life, his job, his family. And he keeps walking for hours, unable to stop, as chronicled in Joshua Ferris’s second novel, The Unnamed.

His wife, Jane, waits for the late-night calls and rescues Tim from horrible neighborhoods. She puts a GPS in a backpack, along with weatherproof gear, in a futile attempt to protect him from the elements. The Farnsworths have consulted every specialist, alternative healer, and quack they can get an appointment with, but no one has ever heard of any similar ailment. (Hence the title.) “ ‘There is no laboratory condition to confirm the presence or absence of the condition,’ he was told by a doctor named Regis, ‘so there is no reason to believe the disease has a defined physical cause or, I suppose, even exists at all.’ ” But that nonexistent disease is destroying the Farnsworths’s lives.

“The Unnamed” is ambitious, intelligent, and even more complex than Ferris’s debut novel, “Then We Came to the End.” It’s also unremittingly dark and unpleasant. If you read for pleasure, walk swiftly in the other direction. Hard-core literati only need apply.

Ferris’s first novel – dealing with mass layoffs and other modern tragedies – was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. (Part of its acclaim came from the fact that Ferris managed to write the novel from the collective “we” point of view. This was before Padget Powell unleashed “The Interrogative Mood” last fall, crafting a novel solely by asking questions.)

But where “Then We Came to the End” combined a wicked sense of humor with its literary showmanship, “The Unnamed” is clinically cold in its diagnosis of the dissolution of a “successful” American life.

With matching sky-high concepts – wife waiting faithfully while a husband goes off on uncontrollable journeys – as well as the way frostbite figures in both plots, “The Unnamed” reminded me tangentially of Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” This book, however, is definitely NOT a romance.

Before his latest round of illness, Tim was a selfish workaholic who avoided his teenage daughter because he found her weight gain unpleasant. (Dude, it’s called parenting. Try it sometime.) And Jane, who has stuck by Tim through several bouts of his “disease” and quits her job to care for her husband, gets thoroughly flogged for daring to fantasize for a moment about being married to a healthy man. (Ferris’s characterization of her struck me as frankly punitive, although, to be fair, Tim is the one who suffers injuries generally not seen outside a torture chamber.)

Maybe the illness won’t come back, the Farnsworths keep telling themselves, as a bit more of their life slips away. Tim first loses his partnership and a little toe. More appendages follow.

Anyone who’s ever watched a loved one battle mental illness, substance abuse, or a terminal diagnosis will see the parallels. But speaking as someone who is three for three, there wasn’t enough emotional insight to warrant wading through all that precisely written misery.

Ferris hasn’t lost his dead-on timing. The first paragraph of “The Unnamed” begins: “It was the cruelest winter. The winds were rabid off the rivers. Ice came down like poisoned darts.” Nor has he misplaced his intelligence or his gifts as a writer. One can only hope he relocates his sense of humor for his next novel.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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