Josha Ferris, The Unnamed | Bleader

Friday, January 29, 2010

Josha Ferris, The Unnamed

Posted By on 01.29.10 at 02:47 PM

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Joshua Ferris will be at Borders in Lincoln Park on Monday, February 1, to read from his new novel, The Unnamed. (Granta has an excerpt online).

Ferris did some time in Chicago as an ad copy writer; a native of downstate Danville, also hometown of such entertainment luminaries as Dick Van Dyke and Bobby Short, he now of course lives in Brooklyn. His refined, clever, and funny debut novel, Then We Came to the End, set in a Chicago ad agency and written mainly in the first-person plural (the gossipy, self-involved employees a collective "we" as narrator), was a big hit and was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award.

After loving Then We Came to the End, I expected to love The Unnamed. But I didn't.

This time around Ferris is shooting for a Big Idea novel. In an interview he said, "That was my greatest hope for the book—that it came to a place where the most pressing questions about what it means to be human, what it means to be heroic in the face of evisceration, and whether or not this particular character could muster the resources to do something in spite of his illness."

Sounds bleak. And the book is quite bleak. I don't mind bleak. In fact, I love bleak.

The book's central character, Tim Farnsworth, is a respected and supersmart partner at a prestigious Manhattan law firm. Beautiful, devoted wife, sullen teenage daughter, great house. Yet descending upon Tim is an absolutely devastating and uncontrollable affliction: with little or no warning, he suddenly feels compelled to get up and walk. And walk. For hours on end, to the point of exhaustion — with no discernible course, no intended direction, no particular destination. It's a completely unique disease, no specialist in any medical or psychological field can help him. In fact, it is so unique that it's as yet "unnamed."

This grave malady understandably wreaks physical havoc on Tim, whose nightmarish walks eventually lead to the loss of fingers and toes to frostbite, and his compulsion creates chaos at his job and within his family.

That part of the story is compelling, indeed, but I couldn't help wondering, if his family loves him so much, Why the hell isn't this guy in a hospital? (Handcuffing him to the bed at home just hasn't worked.)

His longtime law partners never noticed anything amiss?

Tim disappears for days, weeks, or even months at a time, and he's impossible to find. (When his walks were "short" his wife would drive miles till she found him asleep by the road or out in a field or someplace less benign.) Yet he's using his ATM card to get cash. And he's occasionally reachable via cell phone. So maybe file a missing persons report or something.

It's fair to assume Ferris wasn't going for realism, but I couldn't totally suspend my disbelief.

Jay McInerney wrote in the New York Times: "As a fan of “Then We Came to the End” I can admire Ferris's earnest attempt to reinvent himself, but I can’t wait for him to return to the kind of thing at which he excels."

Me too. Some good old insightful, graceful, small idea fiction.

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