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The Unnamed Hardcover – Bargain Price, January 18, 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
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.)
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Imagine that you are married to a man who suffers from this walking compulsion. At any time of day or night, he might disappear from your home. Frantic, you drive your car searching for him. Sometimes you find him sleeping in a pile of snow, half-frozen, miles from your suburban home. Other times you have to wait until you receive a phone call telling you where he is. You love him ... you really do. But this walking compulsion is difficult to understand. What is making him do this? Why can't the doctors figure it out? Is this a mental illness? Is he faking it? Sometimes the stress of living with the uncertainty of his affliction is too much to handle. But then the compulsion disappears. Life gets back to normal. Until one day, "it" starts again.
This is the life of Tim and Jane Farnsworth. As the book opens, the walking has started again for the third time after stopping for a few years. As readers, we're plunged right into the thick of it--with Tim and Jane struggling to keep it together and maintain the life they've built since the last time "it" happened. Alternating between Tim and Jane's perspectives, the book explores how Tim's walking affects their lives, their marriage, and the life of their only daughter--who is just now beginning to fully understand what her father and mother have gone through.
I started this book early one evening, was quickly sucked in, and finished it in one night. I felt as compelled to read it as Tim was compelled to walk. The details on how Tim and Jane try to manage his walking were fascinating and horrible. And the choices that each makes to try and keep Tim's compulsion from destroying their lives were simultaneously tragic and heroic. My heart broke when Tim decided to try and spare Jane the continued horror of his affliction, and it broke again when he struggled to return to her in a time of need.
When I began reading, I was reminded of Stephen King's story, The Long Walk, which is wildly different but involves forced walking. (In the story, teenage boys are forced to walk until they are the last one standing or risk being shot to death.) When reading King's story, I was fascinated with the idea of being forced to walk far beyond what your body could take or endure. I rekindled that fascination when reading about Tim's walking. Ferris does a wonderful job of making the walking "come alive." At times, I felt like I was out there with Tim...tramping by empty fields or down the sides of abandoned highways. The logistics of how Tim and Jane try to cope with the walking interested me too. It was impossible for me not to imagine myself in Tim's place. What would I do if this happened to me? Interestingly, I never really imagined myself as Jane. In many ways, being Jane seemed like the more horrifying position to be in, which I think says something about me but I'm not sure what.
This felt like such an original book. When trying to figure out what "genre" to put it in, I was flummoxed. Is this is a thriller? In a way-- but it doesn't really capture the depth and "literariness" of the book. I finally decided it was a Personal Dystopia. In most dystopian books, we see an entire world that is negative or horrifying. In this book, only Tim and Jane experience the dystopia. Their world is ripped apart in a way that no one else can fully comprehend or define. At one point, Tim wishes he suffered from something that was "named" and "known"--like cancer--something you could explain to someone and they could understand or sympathize with.
I loved this book. It was dark and bleak and haunting and compelling. If you're looking for something different to read and what I've described sounds intriguing, give this book a try. I imagine you'll find it as haunting and compelling as I did. (Just a word of caution: Don't start it if you don't have time to finish it any time soon. If you're like me, you won't be able to stop reading. It really was "unputdownable.")
First, I was surprised to see ratings below 3 that weren't simply "my book arrived in bad shape" or "I can't read". I did expect to see reviews comparing this to Ferris's last book, which would be a mistake--his first novel was good and of a certain type, and this one isn't at all the same type. There is a touch of humor here, but it's fleeting (there's one section in particular, the bedside story Tim tells to his daughter about a colleague, that IS very funny). There is one section describing, let's say, pergrinations (I can't bring myself to give any details of the book), that may be a bit too long, and the last 30 or so pages (I think) could have been as precise as the first 30 pages--but this is a very good book. You just have to nudge your internal editor every now and then when it says "But logically, this doesn't..." or "Why didn't he just...." The arc of the story starts making sense well before a third of the text, and after that, there are several points where your expectations don't pan out, and then--well, again, I can't bring myself to give any details, but the denouement is dissatisfying and beautiful at the same time. Which, I think, is the mark of great writing.
I bought this from Amazon, and I recommend you do the same. However, if you can borrow, steal, or check out "The Unnamed", you should. I also recommend you do like I did: read it in one day. It's maybe an afternoon's worth of reading, and I believe, after the first 50 or so pages, it's not something you can just put down and go change the oil.
To wit: over this weekend, I tried to catch up on my stacks of reading--the new DeLillo, the new Powell, the new Doctorow, and then Ferris. The first praise I have for "The Unnamed" is after finishing it, I had to sit here for several minutes trying to remember the other books I'd read this weekend. The second praise I have is at two points while reading it, I started crying like a poked infant, and a few pages later giggled. When I closed and shelved the book, and this is my third praise, I figured I'd be re-reading it soon, if for no other reason some of the prose is beautiful. Just before I sat down to write this review, I bought a copy to send to my sister, who doesn't normally read "literary fiction", but who does like a page turner. Regarding the "red herrings" that were touched on by other reviewers--I think the characters and situations were tied up a bit. Maybe not fully, but at least not forgotten.
What I really want to know is the "atom heart" adjectival phrase used at one point to describe spotted cows. Was Ferris listening to old Pink Floyd when he wrote that paragraph?