An edited version of this review appeared in the New Statesman.
When death is distant and life is taken for granted our culture forgets God – meaning the God problem – and focuses on bitching instead. This was the focus of Joshua Ferris’s first novel “Then We Came to the End”, an office comedy asking what ultimately is valuable in our bureaucratised existence.
Now Ferris’s eagerly-awaited second novel “The Unnamed” imagines a man forced from a world in which even soap emanates complacency into death’s proximity, where nothing can be taken for granted. God bares his teeth.
Philosopher John Gray describes an experiment which shows, “the electrical impulse that initiates action occurs half a second before we take the conscious decision to act.” The ramifications for our assumptions of agency are unsettling, to say the least. Reading “The Unnamed” is a companion experience.
Tim Farnsworth is driven to walk – away from food, drink, shelter, family, and his legal career. He can choose neither the direction he walks in nor how long he’ll keep going. When he stops he collapses into narcolepsy, and awakes to frostbite or attempted rape. The Farnsworth family do their best to adapt but the condition is too persistent. The sources of Tim’s consolation dry up.
His condition is the ‘unnamed’ of the title, a character in its own right which, in one tortured stretch, finds its own voice. It’s important for Tim to know if the disorder is physical or mental. Nobody can tell him, even after he wears an impulse-recording helmet to work. The unnamed is greater than scientific categories. Godlike, it just is.
Our protagonist’s chronic nomadism at first seems to be a metaphor of addiction. The book overbrims with obsessive-compulsive TV-watching, drinking, and working. Becka, Tim’s obese daughter, eats. An emphysema sufferer removes his oxygen mask to draw on a cigarette.
Then it grows bigger than that, into an old but inescapable theme: the alienation of body (“brute want and dumb matter”) from consciousness. It’s more bitter than funny, but there is black, Chaplinesque comedy, as Tim, angel ridden by beast, walks out of an essential meeting with his most-valued client, down the stairs and into the street. At times his predicament is so rawly expressed that he is properly mad, splitting into voices; Tim becomes ‘we’ to himself and ‘they’ to the narrator.
But usually he’s as focussed as any of us, in our moments free of routine, on the meaning of the daily struggle. Are we souls or not? Is there more to us than crackling compulsion? What is the meaning of the tyranny of motion, our inability to ever arrive at and rest in a final destination, of the overarching lack of control that contains us?
All this too is the unnamed. As it depletes us, what remains? For Tim, after his battle with God, only a bleak godless mystery, a “death-sealed ignorance, and the indifference to that ignorance by any power higher than man.”
In Ferris’s hands, the great, free-floating metaphor of Tim’s condition gathers mythic force. The walking is like waking up in a cockroach’s body or travelling a dark river to its heart, something immediately recognisable and also absolutely irreducable. One American review expressed irritation with the lack of specificity to Ferris’s symbolism, not realising that metaphors like this must remain unnamed in order to retain their power.
Tim walks in all weathers, and the terrifying beauty of the weather mirrors his inner turmoil. Nature’s mastery plays in apocalyptic tones; there are floods, fires, and mysterious piles of dead bees. “The Unnamed” is a grand American novel by virtue of its continental wanderings through deserts and tundra, and hospitals, motels, old car lots. Like Ferris’s first novel it comments surely and subtly on contemporary American realities. From the snowbanks of the first page, “as grim and impenetrable as anything in war,” the imagery of conlict is relentlessly resonant. Tim’s war is “the one we’ve been fighting for centuries. The one we’ve always lost, so far as anyone can tell.”
Despite its metaphorical heart, “The Unnamed” is more like life than most novels. What appear to be delicious prefigurations in a crime subplot never tie up, for this is a world in which plot fizzles out, mysteries are not solved, and innocent men kill themselves in prison. Here phenomena exist without explanation. What saves the story from confusion, and makes it immensely readable, is Ferris’s skilled exploitation of the reader’s dark joy in watching Tim – who we identify with – disintegrate.
Ferris has Cormac McCarthy’s stylistic skills at both extremes, both the pared-back minimalism of “The Road” (a similarly bleak book) and the densely lyrical description of “Suttree.” He adds the clarity of a J M Coetzee to produce spine-shivering writing of the very highest standard, and of the very highest seriousness.