May 10, 2010


by Joshua Ferris
310 pages, Penguin Fiction

Review by Marc Nash

Ferris' debut novel "Then We Came To The End" was a quiet but sure-handed dissection of the corporate life of a declining advertising agency at the end of the boom. This, his second book, is set against the world of a corporate law firm, but the scalpel is more subtle and metaphorical. Ultimately, the book stands or falls by what you make of its central metaphorical conceit.

Tim Farnsworth, one of the partners of the firm, is afflicted by a compulsion to walk. Walking out of bed at night, walking out of meetings, walking out of anything at any unpredictable time. He just picks himself up and walks for mile upon mile, only coming to a halt when his body collapses under him and he falls into an exhausted sleep, often in precarious circumstances, be it from the weather or his fellow man out in the open. His loyal and loving wife Jane can no longer sleep at night, awaiting the phone call to come pick him up. She, ever the practical one, makes him take a rucksack with all the things he requires to preserve his body, if not his soul.

They have explored every possible medical diagnosis without success. Clearly the idiopathic walking compulsion has some root cause in his dissatisfaction with modern life or his job and provides an oblique critique of both. But it's never quite pinned down. Ferris' treatment of compulsion is highly credible, but the real strength of the book is its portrayal of the loving, loyal and tender relationship between Tim and wife Jane. In fact, set against such internal pressure of Tim's mania and Jane's gradually escalating alcoholic response, I would go so far as to say this is one of the best literary representations of a loving married couple I have ever read.

Tim does have periods where the compulsion is dormant. The couple rediscover the joys of one another in such periods. Their sex acts are brief but so uplifting because they reassert their bond amid the threat and chaos that hangs over them. Jane has other suitors, but despite the lack of any long-term prospect of joy and stability, she sticks by her man. Tammy Wynette eat your heart out, no schmaltz on show here. There is one troubling thing about this, as Jane does remark that Tim's obsessions are all about him and that no one else can penetrate that, but it only makes her more determined to support him in his constant hours of need. "Tell me which one of us should suffer without the other's help. Tell me you'd let me wander off on my own, forget to bathe, forget the promises that we made." Heartbreaking.

I do think the last third of The Unnamed goes on too long, as Tim takes upon himself a final physical separation by geography to protect his wife, undergoes mental breakdown and then seeks one last meeting. The mental collapse is curious, because it throws into confusion what has preceded it in terms of there not being a clearcut underlying cause of his compulsion. His physical deterioration is tough to take as you read along and I think the final cross-country haul to meet up again is also stretching it a bit far; the reader has been here before, earlier in the book. But Ferris pulls it round again, with yet more of his finely-honed language - the precision and economy within this book is simply marvelous - "he knew at once what it had all been for, why he had started off and why he had struggled and it wasn't to win, it wasn't for God and it wasn't stubbornness, or pride or courage."

Ferris is a major contemporary writer. Or he will be. Forget your overblown Frantzens and Foers, this guy merely needs to find his "American Pastoral" or "Underworld" to really lick the modern American epic. I confidently predict he'll get there. His first two books are a fascinating window on such a journey.

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