Sunday, February 14, 2010

#9: The Unnamed

About halfway through reading The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris, I found myself perusing its review online at the New York Times. Jay McInerney was less than glowing in his evaluation, deeming Ferris' first novel, Then We Came to the End, a "masterly debut," before lamenting that "it’s difficult to believe that 'The Unnamed' and 'Then We Came to the End' come from the same laptop." The review concludes on a wistful note, with McInerney willing the author to "return to the kind of thing at which he excels."

So then, perhaps he'd like a sequel? It is true that The Unnamed marks a sharp departure from Then We Came to the End, which was a highly comical yet ultimately shallow plunge into office hijinks and melodrama. (In fact, Ferris' first book was probably a closer -- and slightly older -- cousin to Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You, which arrived on bookshelves late last summer, than it is to The Unnamed. Both books awkwardly mingle frivolity with heavier matters of the soul, with many passages leaving readers simultaneously laughing and yet unsure of whether that was an appropriate response to, say, the protagonist sleeping with his brother's wife. I've seen Adam Sandler movies with more emotional verve.) But these differences are hardly a knock on Ferris' progression as an author. In fact, while I was contemplating buying The Unnamed on, I noticed that the book's page featured a video conversation between Ferris and David Sedaris. At the time, this meeting of the minds seemed apt, but the congruency disappeared upon completing The Unnamed.

Unlike Jay McInerney, I do not find it unthinkable that Joshua Ferris' two novels share the same author. In both books he displays his keenness for irony and wit, and in both books his characters seem ever so slightly unbelievable, even while their antics compel you -- inevitably and without hesitation -- to keep turning the pages. In the case of The Unnamed, the main character is Tim Farnsworth, a partner at a prestigious Manhattan law firm. Farnsworth has a mysterious condition: at times and without warning, he starts walking. And doesn't stop. Or at least not for several hours, until his body gives way and the enigmatic force propelling him forward suddenly yields its mastery over his limbs. By the time he finally regains control over his forward motion, he is overtaken by an otherworldly slumber and often finds himself in unlikely places, such as crumpled in a heap by the East River, or even somewhere in New Jersey (which, I've learned, is so much farther away for a self-respecting Manhattanite than the actual geographical distance traversed).

Tim's wife, Jane, has been his stalwart ally throughout his ordeals, which, as the story opens, have surfaced for the third time. While desperate for a cure, in his darker moments Tim knows he would almost be content just to find someone else with the same affliction, as vindication, proof that his is a purely physical aberration and not reflective of mental vulnerability. In despair, Tim tells his wife, "I'm the only one, Jane. No one else on record. That's crazy." However, the couple's daughter, Becka, a maladjusted teenager with delicate weight issues, is skeptical of her father's illness. In one exchange with her mother, she asks, "Have you ever Googled it? Google it and see what comes up." "Google what?" Jane asks. "Exactly," Becka replies, and it is immediately clear that Ferris has his finger on the pulse of filial dynamics.

Read simply, The Unnamed is a compelling love story -- not in the traditional sense, but in an arguably purer form. There is nothing remotely sexy or alluring about Jane's tireless efforts to rescue her husband (more from himself than from his illness), nor are Tim's attempts to break free from his family to prevent their self-destruction at all representative of popular romantic themes. As a family, the Farnsworths are failures in many respects -- Tim's illness persists, Jane succumbs to alcoholism, and even Becka resigns herself to living with the body she has. Disappointment permeates every part of their lives, yet there is always the potential for a miracle, a reversal; and it is this paradox that characterizes their predicament. Joshua Ferris has combined his talent for lively dialogue and quirky characters and infused his narrative with a profound emotional depth and complexity that was simply not present in Then We Came to the End. That earlier novel claimed the hearts of legions of new fans, and The Unnamed has since broken them. Given the ease with which Ferris has already transported us through these two distinct worlds, it seems safe to expect more pleasant surprises down the road.

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