Joshua Ferris’ second novel, The Unnamed, is a book best read by daylight. It’s a book that has to be read piecemeal, chunked into digestible bites, partially because of the disturbing plot, partially because of the purple prose.
Tim Farnsworth is a lawyer at a firm reminiscent of Boston Legal’s Crane, Poole, & Schmidt – it’s a less farcical, more real world take, complete with kinky fetishes and ass-kissing wannabes looking for an in to the upper echelons. Forced to leave due to what, we slowly discover, is a pathological need to walk, the book chronicles Tim’s frustrations with his condition, bouncing from the shock of a relapse to normality and work, to a second relapse and a pathetic kind of acceptance all within the space of 313 pages.
Throughout, Tim and the separate, third person narrator take turns assuring the reader that Tim’s condition is a disease, a purely physical illness with no mental component. But the constant reminders soon take on a doth-protest-too-much feel, and I found myself looking for signs of Tim’s psychological issues, paying less and less attention to the more central “see how illness can affect a family” theme.
Vivid descriptions of weather and feet abound; there are only so many ways an author can write about walking before the text becomes trite, the metaphors overused. The third person telling creates a distance that’s hard to get past, making sympathy, let alone empathy, a difficult ask of even the most compassionate reader. Add to that Tim’s overwhelming self-pity, followed by a period of almost ridiculous self-sacrifice, and you have a story so ripe it almost makes light of Jane’s alcoholism and Becka’s struggle with an (intentionally?) unnamed eating disorder.
The world of the book is small; despite Tim’s ever-increasing journeys, we remain firmly planted in his head, catching at half-formed realizations and internal philosophical discussions which make little sense by the end of the book, some of which are almost evangelical in nature. Worse, halfway through, Tim crosses from unrelatable to unlikeable; were it not for Jane and Becka, I probably would not have finished the book.
There’s much wrong with Ferris’ latest effort, but there are moments of true beauty and suffering, often entwined, throughout the story. Jane and Becka keeping vigil at Tim’s bedside, trying to distract him as he rattles his restraints; Tim’s admission that not knowing, not having a name for his condition is worse than the condition itself; the moment that passes between Becka and her father when she discovers him at one of her shows. These fragments suggest a deeper narrative, a portrait of a family struggling with guilt and depression in a way familiar to many who’ve been touched by long term illness. Such moments, however, stand out for their stark telling, heightened by an already overly-emotional story.
Despite my oh-so-many issues with The Unnamed, I am glad I read it. The story, stripped down to its core, is a haunting one, with a PSA, “It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know where your kids are?” tick that still occasionally eats into my nighttime hours, keeping me awake well past midnight.