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Unnamed and under-developed

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris; Little, Brown, 313 pp.

A pernicious notion is loose in the world, that it is somehow better to die in a defiant flash of youthful stupidity than it is to fade away, no matter that one’s last thought in this world would then be the anguished discovery of one’s own terminal idiocy. Dying young, stupid and afraid is held to be better than suffering; we’re that brave in the face of life.

There’s no shortage of suffering, or of bravery in the face of life, in The Unnamed, Joshua Ferris’s second novel. Tim Farnsworth is a partner in a law firm, happily married, with a teenaged daughter, inhabiting the suburbs, but he suffers from a strange, undiagnosed (and undiagnosable) affliction: he walks. That is, he is compelled to walk, to walk out on wife and daughter, on clients, on partners, and to continue walking until his strength fails. The condition comes and goes; it baffles medical science. It baffles everyone.

The implications for Tim’s career are obvious. In the grip of this affliction, he feels keenly all the things — wife and daughter — he has taken for granted. But the disease is intractable, and as it worsens, Tim declares war on himself in an attempt to beat whatever it is inside him that is ruining his life.

Of course, he never really can come to grips with it — it must remain the unnamed, a thing beyond understanding. It stands for all those things we cannot control or comprehend, all those uncertainties we fear and all those compulsions that drive us to act against our interests. This device is the centre of interest in the novel. It’s Tim’s bravery in the face of his fate, the question of whether he can beat it, whether he can understand what ails him, that keeps the reader turning the pages.

It also may keep the reader from considering that, through the first half of the novel, Tim is no more finely developed, as a character, than a John Grisham lawyer: he works long hours, does legal stuff like briefs and motions and things, and gets rich; he’s Buried In His Work, he Neglects His Family For His Career, and so on. This character possesses no ability to suprise us, because he’s essentially a lawyerly cliché.

Which may be deliberate. But then, wife Jane is less developed still, possessing no motivations beyond having a man, and daughter Becka remains, through 20-odd chapters, a teenaged caricature. Ferris’s characters only come to life in their reaction to Tim’s affliction. This defines them utterly. And consequently, the reader may find himself, at the half-way mark, wondering why he should give a shit what happens to them, no matter how capably Ferris turns a phrase.

But the novel gathers steam as Tim confronts his disease — himself — in the final third of the story. The conflict is between the rational and the irrational, between the desire to name and control and the willingness to accept fate. It’s here that Tim finally comes to life as a character, here that the novel develops its real power — power that is, unfortunately, undermined by the distance Ferris leaves between the reader and his characters throughout most of his narrative.

Categories: joshua ferris, reviews
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