Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris

The Unnamed has an interesting premise that draws the reader (or, in my case, the listener) into the early sections of the book. Tim Farnsworth is a successful attorney in New York City but, as the book opens, he is experiencing the second episode of a strange disorder that numerous medical specialists have been unable to diagnose:  he cannot stop himself from walking. He sets out and walks for miles, then collapses wherever he is--in a field, on a park bench, on the pavement behind a convenience store--to sleep. When he awakens, he calls his wife Jane and she comes to pick him up. The strain on their marriage is, understandably, severe, and the stress on their teenage daughter Becka is also considerable. They resort to physical confinement to stop the walking, but it does not stop the condition's negative effects--Tim loses his partnership at the law firm and Jane becomes an alcoholic.

When Tim goes into remission, they resume their lives, but in a changed way. Tim has a much reduced position at the law firm, Jane goes to rehab, they move out of their large suburban home into a apartment in the city, and they have sex in public places. Things go relatively well for several years, until Tim relapses again. This time, Jane declines to go out and pick him up after his first walk, and Tim does not return home. He suffers a psychotic break--some of the text in this section features stream-of-consciousness arguments between Tim's brain and "the other" (presumably his body). He ends up in a mental hospital and, when released, keeps walking (he will never enter remission again). Jane and Becka are essentially absent from this part of the book until Jane becomes ill with cancer, and Tim tries to walk his way back to her from the other side of the country; this is the first time he's tried to direct his walking in any way, and the process is grueling. He ends up in the hospital only a few miles from where Jane is being treated, but he eventually is released and reconnects with Jane. I'll leave a few plot elements undisclosed, just in case someone reading this post decides to read the book, but suffice it to say that the ending is not uplifting.

While I liked the first section of the book and thought the premise was intriguing, most of the book was a bit of a mess: Tim's philosophical ramblings make little sense (to me at least); there is a mystery having to do with a case Tim is working on early in the book that reemerges from time to time but never goes anywhere; the depiction of Jane's response when Tim returns is unbelievable. And the writing has problems--the tone and style are uneven and there are inconsistencies: for example, at one point, Ferris says that Tim had never observed the landscapes he walked through--yet there had been many descriptions of those landscapes and the places he wished he had been able to stop but was prevented from doing so because of the compulsion to walk. Ferris reads the audible version of the book himself, and I found his narration flat. In fact, near the end, I fell asleep several times while listening.

Favorite passage:
He stood in the doorway, a nostalgic stranger.

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