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Beautiful and terrifying
on November 1, 2009
It seems clear that Joshua Ferris has a great talent as a writer; after reading this provocative and haunting novel, I am going to order his first book ("Then We Came to the End") and look forward to following his career in the future.
In "The Unnamed," Ferris describes an illness that compels his protagonist (Tim Farnsworth, a wealthy and successful lawyer) to drop whatever he is doing at a specific moment and then walk to the point of desperate exhaustion. Not surprisingly this idiopathic condition (medical professionals remain unable to diagnose or effectively treat it) wreaks havoc on his family life, and ultimately reduces his existence to a war between two parts of his identity -- one of which represents the demands of his body, the other of which stands in for his mind or soul struggling for mastery over those demands. At times, it becomes unclear which voice has the upper hand, which represents "health" or the real Tim, which is even speaking. As the illness recurs, he wanders the countryside of many states and regions of the country, suffering frostbite that disfigures his hands and feet even as his inner self is increasingly disfigured by his madness. One reviewer here calls it a parable; I agree.
I would like to challenge, however, a couple of the observations repeatedly made by reviewers here. First, I didn't find the plot to be so strikingly original. I'm not saying that Ferris isn't the first to think of it in this specific form. But it's a rather simple narrative starting point: What would happen if I gave my hero a compulsion simply to walk out of his life? Taken to its extreme, where might such a compulsion bring him? This is a question that, as we see in the book, ultimately strips away the incidentals of life and leaves us with basic issues of love and identity. By the way, there are plenty of works of literature that work similarly, ranging from Shakespeare's "King Lear," to Jean-Paul Sartre's "Nausea," to Anne Tyler's "Ladder of Years." Create a narrative premise that takes away all the superficial things in life that seem to matter; see what's left.
Second, what that leaves us with -- as readers who become involved in Tim's mental combat -- is the sheer power of Ferris's prose to evoke that inner reality. Unlike some other readers here, I found that prose to be wonderful. No writer should try on this kind of minimalist narrative structure unless he wants to test his ability to create a language that is luminous, transparent, richly evocative both of desperate interior states and of the state of nature. Ferris meets this challenge. His prose is simple, amazing, and beautiful: "He would tell her anything, of course. Yes, of course he would tell her that he loved her and that the soul was vibrant and real and death only an interlude. His banana, how she had taken care of him. She had come to him in far-flung places no matter the time of day or night." I was moved and mesmerized by the writing.
This book demands that the reader give herself over to it as completely as the husband (and wife and daughter) who are at its center surrender themselves to life's whirlwind. It's not an easy book to read, although it is a page-turner. It's an unrepeatable and bravura literary performance.