I didn’t read Joshua Ferris’ first novel, which might set me apart from the majority of people who turned to The Unnamed expecting Then We Came to the End, Part Two. So I could not possibly be disappointed on that score.
I chose The Unnamed because I knew it considered a debilitating condition which remained undiagnosed, but which fundamentally threatened the stability of a family; it’s an intriguing premise and I wanted to see it play out in fiction. And I was not disappointed.
Tim Farnsworth actually is diagnosed at some point, throughout the courses of treatment and the myriad of doctors involved, with benign idiopathic perambulation. “Idiopathic” means “of unknown causes” and “[h]e took exception to the word benign. Strictly medically speaking perhaps, but if his perambulation kept up, his life was ruined. How benign was that?”
Even in chatting about the book, it’s difficult to summarize the dramatic and devastating effects of Tim’s illness: what does it mean to a person (and to the people to whom this person matters, personally and professionally) when their body begins perambulting, er walking, and walking and walking.
Tim suffers from cycles of this, periods in which his feet take over and move him out of the known, the named, and into the unknown and unnamed. What does it mean when relationships are in a perpetual state of disengagement, when someone is always walking away. What does it mean when nothing is still, when presence is something that has become amorphous.
Think of all the fiction that has erupted around the question of spouses who work too much, spouses who choose to separate themselves from their family lives: there’s a lot of conflict there, perfect conditions for fiction to thrive. The Unnamed considers a spouse and father who cannot make that choice, but who is removed from family life by an illness that cannot be qualified.
“Yet there was no precedent for what he suffered, and no proof of what qualified as a disease among the physicians and clinical investigators: a toxin, a pathogen, a genetic disorder. No evidence of any physical cause. No evidence, no precedent — and the experts could give no positive testimony. That left only the mind.”
Yes, it leaves the mind. And The Unnamed immerses you in the consciousness of Tim, his wife and (to a lesser degree) his daughter as they cope with this bizarre situation. (It’s not as bizarre as you might think, really: dabbling in the writing of Oliver Sacks and Norman Doidge raises countless questions about what we think is known and understood about the interplay between the brain and the rest of the body.)
But all of this is the “what” of the book and that, not the “who”, is why I picked up the novel, but I kept reading because of the “how”. Joshua Ferris‘ prose style is addictive (and yes, I’m choosing that word deliberately, because it’s one of the many themes considered in the novel, as characters desperately seek something stable in a reality which is constantly in flux for them).
Not only is the book impressive in terms of how he develops the plot. You probably guessed that anyway; it’s not surprising, because the book itself is rooted in the unnamed, the unknown, so the constant reach for definition and understanding in this situation — in which answers could lie, literally, on every page the reader turns — keeps a reader engaged in the story.
But what is also impressive is how the author tells the story. The prose is relatively straightforward and readers move through readily and constantly — like Tim puts one foot in front of the other, even when his mind (or at least part of it) is begging for him to stand still. But it is punctuated by poetic bursts that are rooted in everyday detail, but are still striking.
For instance: “The chain-link fence to a barren lot was curled up at one corner like a pried-open sardine can.” And like this: “Night after night, he sat at his desk just as a sphere of oil sits suspended in dark vinegar — everything blotted out but his own source of light.”
The author’s use of metaphors reveals the subtle crafting in the novel that makes it so powerful as a whole. Sure, you could just appreciate the images, even out of context, but used to tell Tim’s story, even such simple phrases as these add to the sense of alienation and isolation, the desperate need to connect, to escape.
And yet, I have to admit that I didn’t consciously note any of that while I was reading: I simply flagged passages in haste as I raced to turn the next page. I was aware that something about this novel was working and working very well, but I was so involved in the story that I couldn’t think about that: I just wanted to keep moving.
And I just realized that even that, that constant momentum through the narrative, reflects, no embodies, Tim Farnsworth and his story.
The Unnamed reads like a bestseller, but I think it’s crafted like a prize-winner.