Book Review: The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

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The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris is an emboldened work that is as much philosophically incisive as it is a unique piece of fiction. Reading the book, I thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau when he said, “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains,” meaning that it is institutions which bind, and it is our freedom as aware and self-evident beings which offers clemency. But if we ask what it means to be aware, then even something so simple as “to be” becomes a loaded phrase. Our conscious elements may be nothing more than philosophers and intellectuals bound to the madhouse wall of a mind that is itself a chain that oppresses the dignity of the human spirit.

The closest approximation yet existing to Ferris’s work may be an episode of House MD in which the right and left hemisphere of a man’s brain went to war with each other, his consciousness a casualty of the in between. The Unnamed reads like a case file straight out of House, complete with the intractable futility of diagnosis and the brooding metaphysical inquisitions (but no cantankerous, Vicodin-addicted doctor). Lawyer and devoted husband Tim Farnsworth has a problem, an ambulatory affliction that spontaneously forces him to walk until the point of exhaustion. It is more than a compulsion; it is a necessity. And in a novel populated with compulsions, from the sexual to the alcoholic, the fact that Tim has no choice in the matter seems to offer him little solace.

As the walks become more routine, he is prepared for them. Tim’s wife, Jane, puts together a bag full of things that he might need on a long walk. He takes it with him as he is heading out the door like a kid catching the bus on the way to school. But because his affliction is mindless, it is action divorced from all meaning. There is no joy, no introspection. He is like a ghost trapped in a machine, buried alive within a shell of organic matter.

It is the banality of walking that lends the events a sense of absurdity, and the act of bodily sedition represents the betrayal of something so basic and rudimentary that it is a stark reminder of the complex machinery that we are comprised of, machinery that may be prone not only to disrepute, but outright malfunction. It may not be correct to say that Tim is defective, but there is a definite vulnerability in the idea that we’re all destined to run down into near obsolesce. For some, it happens quicker than others. The act of convalescence is still so woefully misunderstood because there is so much of ourselves that remains a mystery. Our own bodies are alien technology, advanced and self-sustaining, maintained only by secondary beings who struggle to understand the ways in which they work. And what are we to say about Tim? Is his condition physical or psychology? What do these words mean, and are they one in the same?

We consider it a noble act to elevate the conscious parts of ourselves, and the “dead machinery”, as Kurt Vonnegut once described it, is not denied so much as scorned, which makes for a convenient morality play: our materialistic yearnings are subservient to a transcendent will. The duality between mind and body, whether there is any truth in that notion, is something that humans inherently grasp from an early age. Ferris is adept at exposing our biases, and within the story Tim eventually cannot resist the immutable desire to personify his affliction as the meddling will of a separate conscious occupying the same mind or consign it to the act of a spiritual force.

Tim, in his desolation, must believe that there is meaning to his experiences. His search for a diagnosis is a search for a way to describe his condition, but there is a certain kind of impotence to language and communication that underscores our inability to understand something or someone. In Tim’s view, to simply name a thing would be “a victory over brute want and dumb matter.” It’s cathartic because it offers a mode of understanding, both for himself and others, and a belief that he can comport with some unknown part of himself, an act that, if not for his desperation, might seem trivial or vain.

We wield a word like cancer as if it is self-evident of the condition and a cause onto itself. In other words, it must be true that something called cancer is causing the slow cellular degradation and erosion of the basic machinery from the inside. It is like that old proof that God is true because by definition the greatest of all beings must exist. Words themselves create reasons for being. Things such as hope, love, or death are spoken of as if the words are profound. However, it is not ideas or words that cause things.

Ferris never asks the questions, but they are there beneath the surface, waiting to be explored. Is he ultimately saying that free will is illusory, a product of “brute matter” acting in accordance with the strictures and laws of the universe? Or is he saying that free will is subdued by inanimate forces, an unprotected resource in an indifferent universe? What happens to Tim is a sort of anti-miracle; an event so random that it has never been documented but is nevertheless possible within the world that Ferris has created. It is tempting to calls such events good or bad, but matter is neither good nor evil. Life is simply the product of things that cannot be named.

If good storytelling is about proportionality, then the power of The Unnamed is founded in the essential nature of its quiet, free-floating observations, the kind which, ironically, you might think of during a vagrant walk. When spanned together, they create a cohesive narration. These elements produce the novel’s greatest strengths, its thematic ingenuity, as we get to know the florid internal lives of the characters. The recursive nightmare that Tim inhabits reminds us that the space between things experienced and things hoped for is often the circumstances that quite literally pull us away from the life we wish to lead.

There are a few kinds of ways in which a theme can be employed in a story: themes can illuminate characters, in which capacious and deeply-explored lives are constructed out of the raw materials of words and feelings, and characters can illuminate themes. The Unnamed is the latter. Throughout the book, there are very few distended scenarios that allow the kind of breathable space in which an author would traditionally develop characters, and some important events are skipped over entirely, so the fertile existence of Tim and Jane and their daughter, Becka, in The Unnamed are couched mostly within the precepts of the themes, which they embody. It is essentially a book of the mind, but it is also at times a book of the heart. The emotion of the story is primarily sustained by lovely prose and beautiful relationships that exist across time, so that the reader hopes that the spell cast over Tim can be abolished by the devotion and strength toward the people he loves.

In her review, Jennie Yabroff surmised that Ferris is not trying to smuggle any “Big Ideas” into the novel – and that free of any interpretation, it is just a story about walking – but the walking itself may very well be the Big Idea. I wonder if meaning itself here is a tautology: to even read The Unnamed is to assume meaning, even if it is just to say that the book is about a man who cannot stop walking. But meaning is not the same as a reason. Everything happens for a reason because we live in a rational, organized universe where things occur in predictable patterns. As pattern-seeking beings, we have no choice but to interpret and find meaning, even to the point where we think that events themselves are messages and moral guides, if for no other reason than the opposite choice might be nihilism.

Because the novel rises and falls on the strength of its observations, The Unnamed easily could have been a shorter story. There are only a few ways to end a story, but countless ways to satisfy a theme. Sure, the characters experience changes and revelations, but there is no conventional arc where necessity dictates narrative. Instead, there is more of a rhythm or a pulse to the story, which rises and falls with regularity. Sometimes it quickens and sometimes it slows with the ebb and the flow of the gangrenous heart that beats at the center of the book. The story is obviously about a man who walks, and there is an investment in the philosophical ramifications of that central core idea. In some places it feels like The Road, a total apocalypse of the mind, except not quite as captivating, so it is difficult to tell whether some of the novel is excessive adipose – dalliances that extend octopus-armed from one central idea but can be detached – or integral to the internal temperature of the narrative.

It is, much like the walks themselves, about the moments, the individual architecture that is passed by. Whether it is noticed or not depends upon whether one is looking. Sometimes the most triumphant or erosive elements happen in a moment, and sometimes they are wonderfully or painfully wrought. It is both a strength and weakness, and throughout the course of an interesting and insightful story, it is perhaps just as absorbing as it was meant to be.