The Unnamed

( 69 )

Overview

He was going to lose the house and everything in it.

The rare pleasure of a bath, the copper pots hanging above the kitchen island, his family-again he would


lose his family. He stood inside the house and took stock. Everything in it had been taken for granted. How had that happened again? He had promised...

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Overview

He was going to lose the house and everything in it.

The rare pleasure of a bath, the copper pots hanging above the kitchen island, his family-again he would


lose his family. He stood inside the house and took stock. Everything in it had been taken for granted. How had that happened again? He had promised himself not to take anything for granted and now he couldn't recall the moment that promise had given way to the everyday.

Tim Farnsworth is a handsome, healthy man, aging with the grace of a matinee idol. His wife Jane still loves him, and for all its quiet trials, their marriage is still stronger than most. Despite long hours at the office, he remains passionate about his work, and his partnership at a prestigious Manhattan law firm means that the work he does is important. And, even as his daughter Becka retreats behind her guitar, her dreadlocks and her puppy fat, he offers her every one of a father's honest lies about her being the most beautiful girl in the world.

He loves his wife, his family, his work, his home. He loves his kitchen. And then one day he stands up and walks out. And keeps walking.

THE UNNAMED is a dazzling novel about a marriage and a family and the unseen forces of nature and desire that seem to threaten them both. It is the heartbreaking story of a life taken for granted and what happens when that life is abruptly and irrevocably taken away.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The attorney Tim Farnsworth seems to have it all—a perfect wife, a loving daughter, rewarding and meaningful work—but the return of a mysterious disorder out of The Red Shoes (at any time of day, Tim is compelled to walk until he passes out with exhaustion) threatens to shatter everything he has built. Ferris delivers an understated reading that is all the more moving for its subtlety. His voice is calm—but it's a controlled calm suggestive of the Farnsworth family's terror and their struggle to assert order over the increasing anarchy. Ferris commands without volume or theatrics and his is a sincere, quiet, and moving performance. The audio features a not-to-be-missed interview with the author, in which he analyzes his writing process and offers his own take on the novel. A Little, Brown/Reagan Arthur hardcover (Reviews, Nov. 16). (Jan.)
Library Journal
Ferris's title refers to an unidentifiable disease that compels protagonist Tim, with no warning, to walk compulsively, no matter the distance or time of day. His disease, which is unpredictable and has affected him for many years, keeps Tim's wife, Jane, and daughter, Becka, in a state of alert and constant anxiety. While much of the novel is about marriage, commitment, and family illness, readers are gradually taken into uncharted territory. It becomes apparent that Tim's disease is a metaphor for man's inherent lust to wander. The motivation for this lust is unclear, but that's what makes the novel interesting as it stimulates readers to formulate their own interpretation. Ferris (Then We Came to the End) is adept at characterization: Jane may be devoted to her ill husband, but she still has her weak moments, which make her character very human. VERDICT Ferris is an intrepid writer—he doesn't provide a solution (there's no cure for Tim)—but he does explore all of the consequences. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/09.]—Victor Or, Surrey P.L. & North Vancouver City Lib., B.C.\
Kirkus Reviews
A successful lawyer finds himself blindsided by a mysterious affliction in Ferris' sophomore effort, an even more ambitious and provocative novel than PEN/Hemingway Award winner Then We Came to the End (2007). Tim Farnsworth's condition has no name (hence the title), and it may disappear for years at a time, but when it returns, Tim feels compelled to walk with no destination, to the point of exhaustion, abandoning all responsibilities of work and family until the disease disappears as mysteriously as it has arrived. With echoes of Samuel Beckett, Tim explains the inexplicable, "You go on and on. Your one note gets repetitive, it's taxing." And some readers might well find this novel taxing in its repetition-as taxing as Tim's wife, Jane, finds dealing with her husband as she also battles first alcoholism and then cancer. As in the author's first novel, office politics play a part here, and there's a deft interweave of the comic and the tragic, but ultimately this dark narrative permits only one ending. With Tim and his doctors trying to determine whether his problem is physical or mental, the book can be read as a parable of addiction or any other condition that refuses to recognize a distinction between mind and body. Or simply as a meditation on the human condition, an evocation of "the ordinary banality of endurance" beneath "the blank expression of eternity." This is Ferris' Something Happened-appropriately enough, since some reviews of Then We Came to the End invoked Catch-22-defying in its very premise "the rigid orthodoxies of cause and effect!" upon which most fiction depends. Audacious, risky and powerfully bleak, with the author's unflinching artistry its saving grace.
Ain't It Cool News
"It's something to behold, this book...a breathtaking debut."
AudioFile
"There isn't a moment when Ferris the reader loses one's attention to what Ferris the writer has to say."
Time
"Rich and profound."
Salon
"Unfold[s] in a hushed, shadowed dimension located somewhere between myth and a David Mamet play."
The New Yorker
"An unnerving portrait of a man stripped of civilization's defenses. Ferris's prose is brash, extravagant, and, near the end, chillingly beautiful."
Very Short List
"Astonishing and compelling."
The Los Angeles Times
"Ferris puts his notable wit and observational ability aside in favor of a far more psychological (and ultimately physical) examination of the self. . . . an accomplished and daring work by a writer just now realizing what he is capable of creating."
The New York Times
"[Ferris is] a brilliant and funny observer."
O Magazine
"Ferris shows a talent for the grotesque in his riveting descriptions of Tim's decline. He also includes his specialty - scenes of juicy office intrigue. But what's most engrossing in his portrait of a couple locked in an extreme version of a familiar conflict - the desire to stay together versus an inexplicable yearning to walk away."
The Washington Post
"You can't break away from the grip of these opening chapters . . . Ferris usually writes in a steady, cool voice whether delivering the quotidian details of office work or existential observations about God that would otherwise sound grandiose. The effect is a terrifying portrayal of intermittent mental illness, the way the fear of relapse becomes a kind of specter, mocking each recovery and shredding any hope of a cure."
The Boston Globe
"Strange and beguiling . . . With this brave and masterful novel, Ferris has proven himself a writer of the first order. The Unnamed poses a question that could not be more relevant to the America of 2010: Will the compulsions of our bodies defeat the contents of our souls?"
The Wall Street Journal
"Riveting."
GQ
"Where Then We Came to the End mined the minutiae of cubicle life for humor and pathos, this one goes straight for the heart (and the jugular), telling the story of a married father struggling with an inexplicable disease, and the lengths to which he'll go to maintain control of his life."
The San Francisco Chronicle
"At once riveting, horrifying and deeply sad, The Unnamed, like Tim's feet, moves with a propulsion all its own. This is fiction with the force of an avalanche, snowballing unstoppable until it finally comes to rest-when we come to the end, so to speak."
The Chicago Sun-Times
"There is beauty in Ferris' writing, even when charged with despair."
The Economist
"Mr. Ferris is wise enough not to teach a lesson. Rather, he has teased ordinary circumstances into something extraordinary, which is exactly what we want our fiction writers to do."
Christian Science Monitor
"The Unnamed is ambitious, intelligent, and even more complex than Ferris's debut novel, Then We Came to the End."
The Miami Herald
"Bracingly original . . . Surprisingly, almost tenderly, and despite his unrelenting refusal to churn out a predictable happy ending, [Ferris] turns The Unnamed into a most unorthodox love story about commitment and sacrifice."
St. Petersburg Times
"Ferris' distinctive writing style is serious but whimsical, philosophical with a touch of the absurd."
author of ABSURDISTAN and THE RUSSIAN DEBUTANTE'S Gary Shteyngart
"Arresting, ground-shifting, beautiful and tragic. This is the book a new generation of writers will answer to. No one in America writes like this."
starred review Booklist
"Ferris imbues his story with a sense of foreboding, both for the physical world, in the grip of record-breaking temperatures, and for the vulnerable nuclear family and its slow unraveling. With its devastating metaphoric take on the yearning for connection and the struggles of commitment, Ferris brilliantly channels the suburban angst of Yates and Cheever for the new millennium."
From the Publisher
"It's something to behold, this book...a breathtaking debut."—Ain't It Cool News

"Ferris delivers an understated reading that is all the more moving for its subtlety...The audio features a not-to-be-missed interview with the author."—Publishers Weekly

"There isn't a moment when Ferris the reader loses one's attention to what Ferris the writer has to say."—AudioFile

Library Journal
Attorney Tim Farnsworth has lately been falling prey to a compulsion to walk away from home and job and to keep walking, until he collapses from exhaustion. National Book Award finalist Ferris (Then We Came to the End) lays out the toll this takes on his body, marriage, and career in nearly sadistic detail. There exists a delicious tension between the compassionate tone with which he reads this very sad tale and the horrors he inflicts on his characters as author. Beautifully written (though Ferris may be overreaching in his musings on Cartesian dualism); an excellent choice for any library. [The Little, Brown hc was "highly recommended," LJ 11/1/09; producer Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men) has bought the film rights.—Ed.]—John Hiett, Iowa City P.L.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End was one of the most socially intricate and comically astute first novels of recent years. It used an unusual first-person plural point of view to represent individuality-muffling work in a large Chicago ad agency. Only a woman dying of cancer escapes the "we" or, more precisely, has singularity imposed upon her by her illness. Densely populated, fine-grained, and large-hearted, Then We Came to the End won the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction and the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, and was a National Book Award finalist in 2007.

In The Unnamed Ferris places disease at the book's center, where it defines character, controls the narrative, and even dictates this second novel's settings. Tim Farnsworth, a successful Manhattan litigator, finds himself suddenly compelled to walk -- out of his office, out of conversations, away from home. He can't anticipate an onset, can't choose where the walk will take him, stops only when exhausted, sleeps outdoors wherever he stops, and calls his wife to come get him when he wakes. His compulsion makes him an inattentive father to his teenage daughter, Becka; deprives him of his job; eventually separates him from his beloved wife, Jane; causes him to lose toes and fingers to frostbite; and finally consigns him to wandering the American continent.

Although Ferris never names his protagonist's literal dis-ease, his book joins a group of recent "syndrome novels": Richard Powers's The Echo Maker (Capgras syndrome), Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Asperger's), Ian McEwan's EnduringLove (de Clerambault's), and Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn (Tourette's). The danger for fiction from what might be called the Oliver Sacks syndrome (he is alluded to in The Echo Maker and in The Unnamed) is a novel's becoming an exercise in exotic pathology. Powers avoids this by concentrating on the variously motivated characters responding to the Capgras sufferer. Ferris courts the danger and ups the ante by intensely focusing on his walker, a choice that ultimately transforms pathology into a gouging existential metaphor. As Faulkner said, life is motion. The need for movement pervades many American novels, including Updike's Rabbit Run and DeLillo's Running Dog, but Ferris's compulsive pedestrian pushes beyond these runners' urges to a primal truth.

Move or die.

Before recognizing this grim choice at novel's end, readers will find plenty of sunnier fictional pleasures. Tim's work at the law firm yields amusing anecdotes about other obsessive attorneys who manage to keep or improve their positions. Becka, who suffers from an eating disorder, changes from a resentful teenage caretaker of her father to an independent spirit and then to a sympathetic, if brief, caretaker. Living with Tim drives his wife to drive (to chain restaurants in Connecticut) and to drink, but Jane reclaims herself and attempts to regain Tim as he roams farther and farther away. Ferris also inserts a murder mystery that Tim might have solved had he not been in the throes of his syndrome.

But the novel is fundamentally and increasingly about Tim. Trained in linguistic precision, legal precedent, and observable causality, he assumed at the first onset that some doctor -- even if it's only "the One Guy" -- would be able to name and explain, if not cure, his condition. Tim's worldwide search for that "One Guy" lightens flashbacks with cameos by several obviously crank healers. In the novel's present -- twelve years after the initial onset, eight years after a relapse during which Tim was handcuffed to his bed for 27 months, and four years after Tim and Jane fled their suburban home -- Tim decides to leave his wife (for her own good), let his walks take him where they will, and war against himself alone.

Ferris records arguments between mind, which Tim clings to as self, and body, which Tim assumes is causing the compulsion because, rational materialist that he is, he discounts psychological causation. Physically weakened by his random walk across America, Tim desperately enlists God's help to turn self into soul and gain an edge over body. Enforced hospitalizations and antipsychotic drugs help restore his rationality -- but also the body that just keeps walking. Tim refuses to accept that some aspect of the mind is inviolate to legal analysis or that the body's brain may be commanding his legs. This obduracy is his heroism but also his hubris and leads to the "lesson" of syndrome novels: that the body/brain interface -- what the neuroscientists call "embodiment" -- is more enigmatic than lawyers can imagine and even scientists explain. Or to quote Emily Dickinson, whose "After Great Pain" supplies titles for the novel's four parts, "the brain is wider than the sky."

Ferris's brain falters a bit in the last third of the novel, when Tim gets as far west as Portland. Settings are fleetingly registered through Tim's consciousness, which is mostly busy with its mind/body combat. Although the resulting fragmentation is appropriate, it's also repetitive and opaque. Perhaps to reward the reader for accompanying a disintegrating consciousness and disfigured body across a mostly disheartening landscape, Ferris allows Tim to briefly overcome his compulsion for a rather unlikely and therefore sentimental family reunion near the novel's end.

Once the pathological mainspring of The Unnamed is accepted, it's a consistently realistic book. It can even be read as a moving account of homelessness (though Tim always has plenty of money). But the novel is also a textual syndrome, the place (from the Greek) where other fictions "run together." Ferris's numerous descriptions of nature as a "freak menace" and the plot's determinism hark back to the naturalists, to novels such as Norris's McTeague and Dreiser's Sister Carrie, which incorporated the skull and brain science of their time. Since Ferris took the title of his first novel from DeLillo's Americana, The Unnamed can't help but recall DeLillo's The Names, in which a name-searching wanderer ends as Tim does. But the most important precursor is Beckett's The Unnameable, which Ferris has identified as one of his favorite novels. Beckett's self-splintering protagonist can't move. Ferris's schizoid character can't stop. Beckett's narrator says, "I can't go on, I'll go on." Tim's mind says to his body, "You go on and on." The Unnamed stops, but its story of a kinked mind and its intersections with other fictions go on and on in the reader's mind.

Then We Came to the End explored with great vigor the horizontal "x" axis of social, cultural, and economic relationships. The Unnamed obsessively tunnels down the "y" axis of self to arrive at another meaning of "x" the unknown. Taken together, the novels demonstrate a wide-ranging and deep-plunging new talent at work. --Tom LeClair

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594430803
  • Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
  • Publication date: 9/14/2010
  • Pages: 310
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris's first novel, Then We Came to the End, won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, and was a National Book Award finalist. It has been translated into 24 languages. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Best New American Voices, New Stories from the South, Prairie Schooner, and The Iowa Review. He lives in New York.

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Read an Excerpt

The Unnamed


By Ferris, Joshua

Reagan Arthur / Back Bay Books

Copyright © 2010 Ferris, Joshua
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316034005

THE FEET, MECHANICAL

1

It was the cruelest winter. The winds were rabid off the rivers. Ice came down like poisoned darts. Four blizzards in January alone, and the snowbanks froze into gray barricades as grim and impenetrable as anything in war. Tombstones were buried across the cemetery fields and cars parked curbside were swallowed undigested. The long-term debate about changing weather was put aside for immediate concern for the elderly and the shut-ins, while the children went weeks without school. Deliveries came to a halt and the warehouses clogged up on days the planes were approved to land. There were lines at the grocery store, short tempers, a grudging toward the burden of adjustment. Some clever public services addressed the civic concerns—heat shelters, volunteer home checks. The cold was mother of invention, a vengeful mother whose lessons were delivered at the end of a lash.

The ride home was slow going because of the snow and the traffic. He usually worked by eyelet light but this evening he brought no work home and sat in one quadrant of the car without file opened or pen in hand. They were waiting for him. They didn’t know they were waiting for him. The driver had on 1010 WINS, traffic and transit on the ones. Somewhere, out to sea or in the South, it might not be snowing. Here it slanted into the windshield like white ash from a starburst. The frostbite had returned to his fingers and toes. He unbuckled the seat belt and leaned over, stretching his long torso across the backseat, and what the driver thought he didn’t care. The sound of the radio faded as one ear was sealed up by the distressed leather and he put a hand on the floor mat and ran his tingling fingertips over the fiber-trapped pebbles. He hadn’t called to tell them. He had lost his phone. They were waiting for him, but they didn’t know it.

The driver woke him when they reached the house.

He was going to lose the house and everything in it. The rare pleasure of a bath, the copper pots hanging above the kitchen island, his family—again he would lose his family. He stood just inside the door and took stock. Everything in it had been taken for granted. How had that happened again? He had promised himself not to take anything for granted and now he couldn’t recall the moment that promise had given way to the everyday. It was not likely one single moment. He set his keys on the table below the mirror and uncharacteristically took his shoes off on the long Persian runner, which he and Jane had bought in Turkey. They had spent a week in Turkey and a week in Egypt. They always had a trip in the works. Their next trip was a Kenyan safari but it would have to be postponed now. He walked through the house in his socks. Inside the kitchen he ran his hand along the dimly lit countertop. He loved his kitchen, the antique cupboard doors, the Moroccan tile backsplash. He walked through the dining room, where they hosted dinner parties for his firm. The long table sat twelve. He reached the stairs and put his hand on the oak newel and took one step after another. Family photographs made the ascent with him. The sound of the grandfather clock ticking away in the living room gave way to the television laughter issuing softly from the bedroom down the hall.

Jane was still beautiful. She was wearing a pair of reading glasses that had a Pop Art zaniness of character, teardrop frames polka-dotted with drops of primary color. Spaghetti straps revealed her slender arms and the nightgown held her firm breasts in place just below a freckled slate and an articulated clavicle. She was doing the crossword. Whenever she got stuck, she glanced up at the late show on the flat screen mounted to the wall and drummed the pen between upper and lower teeth, as if to waken her brain. She looked at him as he entered, surprised to see him home so early. “Hello, banana,” she said. He took off his suit coat as if it were a T-shirt, thrusting the back over his head and turning his sleeves inside out. Then he found himself grabbing the hem, a hand on each half of the parted tail, and ripping the thing in two. Hard to break the seam at first, but once the first thread snapped, it went. Jane opened her mouth but nothing came out. He dropped the tattered coat and climbed onto the bed and hunkered down on his hands and knees like a man waiting for an explosion. “What is it?” she said. “Tim, what is it?” His head was lost inside his sheltering arms. “Tim?” She moved over to him and put her arms around him, hugging him from above as if they were about to engage in a wrestling match. “Tim?”

He told her that he had been forced out of the building and into the street. At 43rd and Broadway he hailed a cab, which he hoped would take him back to the office. After getting the cab to pull over, he reached out and opened the back door. But then he walked on. The driver, a Sikh in a pink turban, honked the horn, staring at him through the rearview mirror. Why would someone hail a cab and open the door only to keep walking? Near Union Square he had tried to call an ambulance, a recourse they had envisioned during his last recurrence. He was on the line with a dispatcher trying to explain the situation when he slipped on a patch of ice coming off a curb and lost his grip. “My phone!” he cried out as he regained his balance. “Somebody! My phone!” He walked on with a tweaked back. “Please get my phone!” Everyone ignored him. His BlackBerry had landed in the middle of the street where it lay defenseless against oncoming cars. He kept moving forward. He told her of all the city scaffolding he walked under, the manic traffic he managed to avoid, the parade of oblivious people he passed. He told her that he had turned tired in the old way by the time he reached a bench, somewhere near the East River, where his body gave out. How he had crumpled up his suit coat for a pillow and taken off his tie, sweating despite the cold. How he woke up in horror an hour later.

“It’s back,” he said.



Continues...

Excerpted from The Unnamed by Ferris, Joshua Copyright © 2010 by Ferris, Joshua. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Interviews & Essays

Joshua Ferris - A Conversation with Carolyn Kellogg

Now 35, living outside of Hudson, New York with his wife and child, Joshua Ferris entered a very small club of young, accomplished novelists on the basis of his critically acclaimed first novel, Then We Came to the End. When he learned that his debut had been nominated for a 2007 National Book Award, Ferris already had "a full head of steam" on his second book, which has just been published.

The Unnamed is the story of an affluent Manhattan attorney who suffers from a mysterious recurring disease that compels him to walk. He walks, no matter the weather, until his body is so exhausted that he drops to the ground in a heavy sleep. He insists the affliction is not in his head, yet it can't be controled - he has to be physically constrained to stop walking. Inventing a wholly fictional disease for Tim, Ferris has used the skeleton of a medical mystery to build in inquiry into larger questions of illness, of family, of suffering and of what it means to be human. I interviewed Ferris over the phone in December 2009; what follows is  an edited transcript of our conversation. --Carolyn Kellogg

Barnes & Noble Review: Tim is an affluent, driven attorney at a high-powered firm in Manhattan. Do you see him as a particularly New York character?

Joshua Ferris: I suppose that the trappings of life indicate that he is a particular type of character that may be only found in New York, or might have counterparts in London or other places. He clearly has all of the status markers of somebody who exists most fervently in New York. I would say it was a deliberate construction of that character.Everything is at a high level. Life is lived at as an aggressive, successful pitch as possible.

BNR: But he's not so focused on his work that he hasn't picked up other trappings, like his family. He has a beautiful wife, Jane, who is devoted to him -

JF: I would hope that that undercuts what you might think of as a stereotypical character. He has been, for the most part, a devoted family man, in contrast with a couple other characters in the book, that manage to be as high-octane as he is, but don't do so well on the family front. He's the exception - they're limited to one child, but he's done his best with her, and he's still as successfully married as one can be after 20 years. That's an important counterbalance to the overriding professionalism that defines, more or less, his identity. It presents a fuller picture than the one we might consider when we're walking past someone, on 50th Street or Fifth Avenue, who looks like he fits the bill as a high-powered attorney in New York City.

BNR: The illness in the book interrupts his ability to be a successful attorney. Where did the shape of that condition come from?

JF: One of the things that I aspired to was to write something with a fantastical premise, but to always keep it very well rooted to the real world. Everybody knows what it means when you say "magical realism" - there's nothing magical realist about The Unnamed, but I would say it is, to some extent, a realist magic. I wanted the book to be very believable - but at its heart, it is high-concept invention. I had to work very hard to establish the ground rules in order to make believable this walking disease, which doesn't exist in the medical literature, or anywhere except in my head. The ground rules were important, establishing a texture, a tone that was very respectful of the disease, yet at the same time, pressing hard on him, through the people in his life, to try to confront the possibility that the disease was a mental breakdown of sorts. I could then have a debate about disease in general, about the extent to which a disease is physical, mental or a combination of both. That was important to me, and that was intriguing. But what was most important was to find the right tone with which to tell a fanciful conceit about real people.

BNR: Much of Tim's trauma is played out in how it affects his family. In that way, it's a detailed domestic drama like we might find in Cheever or Yates, even though the pressure is supplied by this unreal disease. Were you consciously bringing together different literary genres?

JF: I was thinking very much about it. I think it's an overriding preoccupation. I was not interested in writing merely a domestic drama, and I wasn't interested in writing simply the story of a medical mystery. The combination that emerged as I was writing became a far more compelling path to take than what I had initially conceived.

It was very one note for a long time, and trying to figure out all of the ways in which sickness - especially one that remains unresolvable, like Tim's - ricochets across a man's life, that became the real source of the book's animating force.

It seems at every turn, when you're talking about disease, or reading about it in an article, everyone is obsessed with finding the physical underlying cause of any given disorder. Even if you were able to do that, it doesn't take away its mystery, and it doesn't take away the essential nature of the suffering that the victim experiences.

Take a disease like schizophrenia. We now have medicines for it. It can be remedied, to some extent, and the sufferer be made better and functioning. That medicine is working on a physical level. So a disease that we typically think of as a mental disorder is a more refined physical disorder. We're finding out that if you inhibit certain neural transmitters, or supplement the brain in some way, then you get what we call "normal" or "functioning" behavior. I started thinking, "What about a disease that can't be reduced to any kind of physical solution?"

By inventing a disease and making it uncurable and undiagnosable, I was able to strip away the expectations that the reader might have if I had given them an identifiable disease, and talk on a much more fundamental level about the Platonic notion of disease and the way in which it affects people's lives. Not only with respect to other people - namely their family, friends - and their professional lives, the way they've constructed themselves, how they think of themselves, their identity. But also the ways in which it really starts to mess with one's head; it could very easily lead one to become mad.

So often, diseases happen, and then, as a corollary, you get depressed. This is called co-morbidity, in medicalese. And you have to think the reason for the depression is because the disease, the illness, whatever it might be, is very destructive. Even if it's not a death sentence, it's disruptive. Ultimately, what it came down to was if you can't reduce everything to the physical, you can start talking about things like the soul, and God, and where does punishment come from, and relief. If you're made to act in ways you don't want to act because your body is rebelling, for untold reasons, where do you find solace? What kind of character do you need to contend with unforeseen forces that could, easily destroy your life. It became a much larger question, and those larger questions played into the smaller questions of the domestic drama.

BNR: Major books by nonfiction writer Oliver Sacks and novelist Richard Powers, among others, identify many aspects of human personality with brain chemistry. How does your book fit in with recent literature of science and the brain?

JF: That literature typically presupposes a reductionist view, a physicalist view of the mind and the body. In some cases, it's highlighted in red. In other cases, with Oliver Sacks I think, you have to read him enough to understand that underlying every point he's making is the death of the traditional notion of the soul. It can be very dismaying. The advances that have been made, and the alleviation of suffering that has resulted from those advances, are positive and good. But a strictly reductive and positivist notion of the body and of the mind can be dismaying to the humanist. To somebody who believes, or at least wishes to believe, that a human being is a more complex and serious creation than a diagram of some aspect of brain chemistry.

A lot of this is informing me as I'm writing about someone with a disease. Because I resist that reductionist notion. I don't necessarily think it's wrong, but I think we need a robust defense of at least the mysterious experience of illness. It seems to me that when a scientist or a medical doctor or a philosopher says, well, Descartes is over, the mind/body problem has been solved and we know that everything is located in the brain and we should celebrate, it seems to have missed the point. We don't yet have subtle enough tools to alleviate all suffering, and the mystery is far too great - the confoundedness of disease; it brings me back to the soliloquy in Hamlet, "What a piece of work is man."At the end of it, he says, "to me, what is this quintessence of dust?" There are two poles  -- one says we're just this machine, and the other says, what a piece of work is man. I did not want to come down on one side or the other. It's possible that this poor guy, with enough research and enough time, could have solved his problem  -- but essentially, the mystery at the heart of his entire being can never be solved.

BNR: At some levels, his illness is a puzzle, and a plot force. And it's also kind of a metaphor for his struggle to be who he is; it's been there and he has to come to a peace with it, in one way or another. He has to find a way to be the person who can live with this illness, which can serve as a metaphor to how we must reconcile ourselves to our own most unwelcome characteristics.

JF: This is the reason that he is where no man wants to be. He has professional obligations and duties, and obligations to his family, and he's hanging out behind grocery stores, because that's where the walk ends. I was with a friend the other day who said, "I think it's really important to say yes to life, but with serious reservations." I think that's true, and I think those serious reservations have come home to roost in this particular man, and they're put into relief because he has on paper a very successful and happy life. And in a man who is accustomed to getting his way, who has a lot of resources at his disposal, and a lot of support from his family, this man is ultimately forced to leave all of that by something out of his control  -- that relevant question is burning.

That was my greatest hope for the book - that it came to a place where the most pressing questions about what it means to be human, what it means to be heroic in the face of evisceration, and whether or not this particular character could muster the resources to do something in spite of his illness. All of these things became pertinent. I kept going back to the quote by Albert Camus, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy." That was a kind of challenge, as I was writing the book, because clearly this is kind of Sisyphean disease -- its very recurrent nature makes it such. I had to wonder, Is this particular man going to find a way to be happy? And what is it going to be about - his career, his physical comfort, his family?

BNR: While you've been talking about big ideas, it's also a brutally physical book. One of the remedies for Tim's illness has been to bind him to a bed, so he can't get up and walk away, and it's terrible for him and everyone around him. As a writer, what's it like to put your characters through that?

JF: By forcing him into the worst physical circumstances, you not only recognize the dramatic turn his life has taken, but you also recognize that he has to ask very tough questions. Even as far removed as many Americans are from having to tend to the basic necessities of life, like shelter and food - this is a man that is reduced to those essential questions: where is my shelter going to come from, where is my food going to come from, will I be protected from the elements? Those questions are the most urgent ones to ask of humans - for a writer, for me, because they lead to the questions of meaning, death, the other even larger questions. So I had to take him to extremes. I had to go there.

He has to make a certain decision about how to live a compromised life. When you have a compromised life, how do you make room for the more mundane domestic obligations that made up your prior life?

BNR: As the book moves into its later sections, his travels take him further and further from New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, where it began; he's searching for ways to be human and finds some genuine beauty.
Did your own travels, such as your stay at the writing colony Ucross in Wyoming, inform those that Tim takes?

JF: Not only was Ucross there to provide a total contrast - Ucross, the little travel I did Wyoming and Idaho - so sterling, so clean, a very different experience from everything I'd ever had. Such a beautiful part of America. Every other day I want to move out there on a permanent basis.

But I had also moved out of New York - I had moved upstate, about two hours, and I found a small house that was wonderfully secluded. I had started to write fairly aggressively. Winter moved in - the Hudson  had frozen with various creaking ice flows, the branches had all gone cold, very crystalline ... I was struck by the silence, in particular - especially compared to the noise and the grit of the city. It was important as I moved Tim through increasingly grim, homogenized America, that I not forget that there still existed these beautiful places, these little havens of silence, a kind of exaltation. That was the geographical ambiguity of the book, that happily matched the ambiguity of the disease.

BNR: While it's Tim's story, his travails are also his family's, particularly his wife, Jane's. His illness eventually affects her as deeply as it affects him.

JF: If she had not been given voice, I think she would have just been another long-suffering wife. She struggles not only with his sickness, but with the extent to which she wants to sacrifice her life on the altar of it. She emerges, I think, as the person who is really struggling with the tension between duty and freedom. That's something that Tim doesn't have the choice to make - or if he does, he isn't really aware of it. She is aware of it, and the degree to which she chooses one over the other is always in flux. She gave me more license to write about free will than Tim. Tim is, more or less, going to do what Tim's body tells him to do. She has freedom to stand up and walk out.

BNR: You've talked about humanism, free will, the soul - what do you think fiction can do in exploring these issues? In our contemporary culture, I wonder if we don't explore them quite enough.

JF: My guess is that we don't. The corollary to that is that there are those writers that do. Only there can we find the ambiguity and the palpable experience, the curiosity, that the culture - especially the scientific culture - wants to close out. Ambiguity is the enemy of science, but it is the predominant emotional factor - and very frequently, the predominant physical factor - in our lives. It's that which fiction captures unlike anything else. And it's that which makes fiction continually relevant. It is why we go to fiction, it is why we admire fiction writers who are able to capture the world and fix in on the page in a sustained, thought-provoking, moving way. It is a contrarian impulse, that a fiction writer has, against the culture, against other fields whose entire goals is to remove equivocation and drain mystery out - so that either medicine can be on the market, or a produce can be advertised to assuage whatever itch you might have. This is, in large part, fiction's purpose, as it goes mano-a-mano against the culture. I think its first and foremost purpose is to experience joy, but it also does this important work.

BNR: What writers explore this ambiguity in ways that inspire you, that feed the ideas you're dealing with in The Unnamed?

JF: John Haskell did it in American Purgatorio; Rivka Galchen did it in Atmospheric Disturbances - ambiguity and being human are constantly at the forefront of these books.  One of the greatest examples of this is Don Delillo's White Noise. And the questions can be traced back to the Romantic poets, to Wordsworth, asking "What is God? What is the mind? What is this body that I have, and what is it used for?" Delillo asks a lot of questions about transcendence, and death, the ultimate meaning of life. Those are a couple of examples; there are so many others - Edward Jones, George Saunders, able to capture every experience in 5,000 words. That's a small miracle.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 69 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    An one sitting read

    In Manhattan, successful attorney Tim Farnsworth thought he had beaten the Unnamed disease, but on a frozen wintry night he tells his beloved wife Jane that his walking addiction is back. He cannot stop himself from hoofing endlessly until exhausted to the brink of collapse. His second bout with the walking disease seems so much worse than the first trek. Jane tries to help him especially making sure he gets home safe though that proves almost impossible as his marches exponentially grow in time and distance. Their daughter Becka wants to keep as far away from her father whose ambulatory treks embarrass and frighten her.

    Jane mentally struggles as the "caretaker" of Tim and Becka, but to avoid a breakdown she turns to alcohol. She finally falls apart when she learns she has cancer. Meanwhile, Tim's marathons get longer and longer with no relief in sight so in spite of his attempts to help his wife and daughter with their issues, he is not there for the two women in his life who desperately need him.

    Although Tim's treks can feel a bit repetitive, each walk enables the audience to understand a different aspect of his family dynamics especially his relationships with his wife and daughter and to a lesser degree at the law firm. Fascinating though melancholy sad as seemingly Then We Came to the End of existence is the only path a person can travel. However, since an individual's life is relatively short especially in terms of the age of the cosmos, each step on the journey needs to be lived and relished to the fullest even when everything is so gloomy and dark that death might be a consideration.

    Harriet Klausner

    3 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 21, 2012

    Just didn't appeal to me

    I found it disjointed, odd (not in a good way), and pointless. I really wasn't sure what we were suppose to get out of it or the character relationships. Very strange indeed.

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  • Posted March 4, 2012

    Almost didn't finish

    Right out of the gate, the writing style of this book was a little off-putting. There were some really bizarre and jarring metaphors, that had no connection to anything else written. There are also eyebrow-scrunching passages like--
    --"What do you feel when you see a black albino?" he asked. "Sorrow," she said. He stared through the windshield. "Me, too."--
    Even in context, re-reading the scene before it to make any sense of it, I couldn't. I read a lot of bizarre stuff, and this was still a head-scratcher. As the book progressed, I started to figure out why the tone was how it was, but it still didn't seem justified. There seemed to be a disconnect between the characters and the narrator. Usually they are in sync. If not, then there is a reason, like humor, or maybe satire, as in Tom Perrotta's "Little Children". Here, it was just too discombobulating. Although, reading, i.e., Murakami, just because things are mysterious, bizarre, enigmatic, etc. still doesn't mean you don't go along for the journey. Maybe what the book was lacking at the start was an underlying purpose. I almost stopped reading.
    What Joshua Ferris did get right as the book progressed was the pacing of a thrilling read, and, the frustration and relentless vacillation between hope and despair when a family has to deal with unknown illness. In fact, the book became excellent as I read on. However, despite some of the bizarreness of Tim's life, he still worked and lived in "reality", and it's hard for anyone to except that he wouldn't have suffered consequences for some of his actions.
    So, bad beginning, and exponential improvement as it went on, but, I don't want to wait until I'm around fifty pages into the book before it starts to get good. Why couldn't the beginning of the book be brought up to the same quality as the rest of it? By what I've heard of Joshua Ferris' debut, "Then We Came to the End", I wish I would have read that first, and then bought this book. Now, I'm not so sure I want to read the other. I hope someone buys the book for me, so I can read it without paying for it. Oh yeah, I can just get a library card.

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  • Posted February 16, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Odd, fascinating, intriguing, sad

    In a cruelly cold winter, a man makes his way home to his wife and sadly declares "It's back." So begins Joshua Ferris's The Unnamed, and soon the reader knows of lawyer Tim Farnsworth's unnamed affliction-a body that simply has to walk.

    It's back, and Tim tries to hide his illness, struggling to juggle work and family with unexpected absence and the danger of walking too long, too unready in the cold. His wife rushes out to save him. His daughter's beginning to believe all parents are absent. And his bosses and doctors refuse to believe in what can't be understood.

    .rather like society refusing to believe in freak winters, wild-fire spring, dead birds and nature gone wild.

    The Unnamed is full of metaphors and questions and love. For a while I saw Tim as a metaphor for a broken misunderstood world. Love redeems him, even though he's changed. Body argues with soul, and neither wins. And I'm left wondering what I've learned, or if I should read it again. But I'm left knowing I've read a really fascinating book, that works on so many levels my brain needs a rest. I can't wait for our book group to discuss it!



    Disclosure: A member of our book group recommended this book.

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  • Posted October 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Bridget's Review

    This has to be one of the most heart-wrenching books I have ever read. Throughout the entire book, I felt a strong connection with Tim. He's probably one of my favorite characters of all time. I would give this book five stars.

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  • Posted June 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Stop the madness

    I am trying hard to understand the real point or value to this book. What is the message? Relationships, devotion, devastation of the breakdown of mind and body when faced with illness? I guarantee the message is not hope. Only Becka escapes at the end now that she is free of her parents. The book continually plummets into darkness and depression. I know this is true when even the animals die; be it the wild boars, the bees, or the cow whose legs get broken and left in a field to die; even the secondary characters are lost to death and disease. Stop the madness - thank heavens the book is done!

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  • Posted May 14, 2010

    Story of Relationships

    The main character in this book is a very successful Manhattan lawyer who an unusual condition, previously unheard of in the annals of medicine. He has a compulsion, an irresistible need to walk, that can come upon him suddenly without warning, and which he cannot control. He must continue to walk until he falls exhausted and sleeps, great distances from his starting point. All of the medical experts he has consulted are unable to treat him, and his condition is unnamed. This book explores the effect that this has on his life, his family, his career and his psyche.
    I did not expect to enjoy reading this book as much as I did, at least in the first two-thirds or so of the story, before the man takes off on a journey across the country, rarely contacting his wife and child. That part of the book I found to be more of struggle to get through. I did find the entire effort worth it in the end. The effect that his illness has on his wife and daughter, and on their relationships with each other, was a great read.

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  • Posted May 3, 2010

    And I read some of this on my treadmill!

    Imagine waking up one morning with this totally bizarre condition: walking! Walking relentlessly, without destination and no real hope of being able to stop when desired. Tim Farnsworth is the victim of a compulsion that on the surface may appear innocuous, but in the over-all impact on every aspect of his life is utterly devastating. It was easier to relate to the character of Tim's wife, Jane, as she struggles with attempts to deal with her husband's affliction and the consequences on their lives, than it was to relate to the character of Tim; although Tim warrants considerable compassion, his personality becomes less dimensional, not because of the author's writing, but because of the all-consuming nature of his compulsion and the flattening of his personality in satisfying this monster in his life. Later in the novel, the character of Tim and Jane's daughter makes a stronger appearance, but this seems to be almost more of an after-thought. I found the physical effects of the relentless walking on Tim's body, and Jane and Tim's strategies to cope to be the most intriguing part of the whole book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Compelling view of an illness

    I thought this book was a stark and real account about how chronic disease invades a life and alters it forever. It doesn't matter if the disease is Unnamed, parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis or ALS. The issues of loss, faith, guilt, hope and how you fit into life are vastly underrepresented in most modern fiction. Nicely done.

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  • Posted April 13, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Should have been "UnWritten"

    Ok so maybe that's a little harsh. The story did have some high points, the problem being they were too far apart, like page one and page 313. I feel the writer makes a promise and never really delivers. Just like the character in the story he just doesn't know when to stop. By far not the worst book I've read but I beleive if that's the best you can say about a book , well that's a sad statement.

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  • Posted April 10, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Reminds me of "Time Traveler's Wife" but not as good

    In the Time Traveler's Wife, the main character had a genetic problem which made him leave his current time period and travel to other periods. This "problem" wreaked havoc on his life, his body and his relationship. The Unnamed was pretty much the exact same plot except instead of time traveling, this main character went walking. In both cases, the main character left their families, left their jobs, got into physical problems, was out in the elements and suffered severe physical and emotional hardships due to their affliction.

    Even with the element of time travel, I connected with the characters in TTW far more than in The Unnamed. The love story in TTW was more heartfelt and it was a much more moving book.

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  • Posted March 2, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Ferris Wheel

    The Unnamed is a book full of imagination. I so wanted to like it, but for me it just kept getting worse as the characters endured their conditions. I give Ferris credit for cleverness, but does it have to be so depressing?

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

    The Unnamed

    Intersting story line. Author was able to make you really care about the characters and the trials and tribulations suffered due to an unnamed illness.

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  • Posted January 22, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A SOLID READ

    NOT THE BEST, BUT IT IS GOOD!

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted September 20, 2011

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    Posted March 26, 2011

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