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The Unnamed Paperback – September 14, 2010
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, January 2010: It's back. With those words Tim and Jane Farnsworth reenter a nightmare they know so intimately it needs no other description. "It" may not be found among an insurance company's diagnostic codes, but the Farnsworths, a couple made wealthy by Tim's single-mindedly successful legal practice, know it too well: Tim's compulsion, at any random moment of the day or night, to set out walking for hours at a time until he collapses in exhaustion. They've survived two bouts of this inexplicable illness, which began as mysteriously as they ended, and now, as Joshua Ferris's second novel, The Unnamed, opens, they are beset by a third. Ferris's first book, Then We Came to the End, was one of the freshest, most acclaimed fiction debuts of the decade, but he's followed it not with an imitation or extension but with something thrillingly different. Like Tim possessed in one of his perambulatory vectors, Ferris follows his character's condition as far as it leads him, far beyond where logic and loyalty usually take our lives, but always treats it with empathy, grace, and imagination. His language is as exact and poetic as his premise is fantastic, and by the story's end you feel the title refers not only to his hero's strange and solitary disease but also to those elemental but equally inexplicable forces that bind us together through the most difficult turns of our fated lives. --Tom Nissley --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In Ferris's remarkable second novel (after Then We Came to the End), a life of privilege comes to ruin as a result of a strange and mysterious illness. Attorney Tim Farnsworth thought he had recovered from a disorder that compels him to walk to the point of exhaustion. But now his walking disease has returned and shows no sign of going into remission. His wife, Jane, supportive beyond measure, does everything she can to keep Tim safe during his walks, including making routine midnight trips to pick him up. As the disorder takes increasing control over their lives, however, the sacrifices they make for each other drive them further apart. Ferris manages to inject a bizarre whimsy into a devastatingly sad story, with each of Tim's outings revealing a new aspect of his marriage. The novel's circular aspects, with would-be happy endings spiraling back into chaos and then descending further, integrate Ferris's themes of family, sickness, and the uncertain division between body and mind into a vastly satisfying and original book. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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That said, there are a few themes you can find amongst the collected works:
1. Identity. In "Then We Came to the End," the group identity of a typical workplace actually narrates the novel. In "To Rise Again...," the narrator explores his own identity at length only after it was stolen. In "The Unnamed," our protagonist fights an internal war for control of his identity - mind vs. body, intellect vs. carnality.
2. Isolation. An interlude in "Then We Came..." left the group narration to explore the desparate isolation of a cancer patient facing her uncertain fate. "To Rise Again" has its protagonist continually looking in from the outside, forever searching for the inclusion that eludes him. In "The Unnamed," our protagonists Tim and Jane find themselves forced into isolation in spite of, and sometimes because of, their everlasting devotion to each other.
Ferris weaves a tale of desperation and determination. I can honestly say I've never wished for a protagonist's death as much as I did throughout this book - as a mercy. His torments were almost unbearable to share.
Some reviews here bemoan the lack of a catch-all conclusion, but it's consistent with the theme of the book. Take the opportunities to benefit from the insights and experiences presented to you, and make your own peace.
I do not want to get all "book clubby" (because I do not have enough chardonnay in the house to do so), but it is clear that Mr. Ferris did not have the stamina to continue the pace of the literal walk (pun) he started us on. The herby jerky final 100 pages served like a punishment for being interested. Unless his point was to fatigue the reader in a similar fashion to the main character…then bravo. AND screw him for that. On the merits of the beginning 3 stars.
What would you do if you were the spouse—stay together? Rescue that person, take midnight phone calls, spend endless amounts of money on an ever-growing list of specialists?
What would you do if you were the one with the condition—try everything, beyond hope? Will yourself to battle it on your own? Leave to set your spouse free?
These are the questions The Unnamed presents to the reader—questions that take the more familiar scenario of a loved one with a terminal illness, and pushes it to the very extreme of moral obligations and human decency—yet set within the quotidian confines of contemporary American life. It’s a fascinating and sobering premise, which Ferriss unfolds with a gripping and convincing narrative.
The Unnamed would be worth reading for its premise and pacing alone, but what seals the deal is the deliciously inventive description along the way. A homeless man’s sneakers have “gone brandless with grime.” A streetside kebab wrap “hot as ore in his hand.” A “cluster of exiled smokers” hovers around the entrance to a building. We imagine the “dismal fluorescent brutality” of a chain restaurant, the “national color of insomnia and transience.” It's what you ask of all great writing: giving you new eyes for old things.
The upside of The Unnamed is that it's an emotional thrill to read and you'll get to know Tim better than any close friend you've ever had. The downside is the last page, damn thing has an end.
Joshua has some sort of voodoo-esqu power in his writing, from beginning to end, his writing grips, rips and shakes you. You don't read about his characters, you feel them.
My wish is to meet this crazy, writing wizard one day just to thank him.