Friday, January 15, 2010

Unnamed Illness Haunts Joshua Ferris's Second Novel, The Unnamed

Joshua Ferris had a huge critical (and very decent commercial) success in Then We Came to the End. It's a book I wish I read (yes, I own a copy and I don't mean on my bookstore's shelves), but I never got to it. It was also a finalist for the National Book Award.

Well, it seems that Ferris's new novel The Unnamed, from early reviews at least, is quite different and likely to get very strong reviews in the press. It's about a lawyer named Tim Farnsworth who is periodically struck with a strange malady; he wanders off until he can't walk any more and then he goes to sleep. Part of the disease involves taking off articles of clothing so even though he tries to be prepared, things can turn particularly sticky in the winter.

The story is also about his wife Jane and his daughter Becka and how their lives are made more difficult by the illness. Sometimes they learn to work around it and sometimes it takes a toll on them, leading to identity disorders and addictions and the like.

It's clear to most readers (in addition to reading advance reviews and quotes from other bookstores, my coworker Rebecca also read the book) that whatever the disease (it's unnamed!) that Tim has, it's also probably a metaphor for something else. One reviewer said the book was clearly about man's urge to wander. That seemed literal to me and I didn't see how it fit into the rest of the book. Rebecca thought it was clearly an allegory about mental illness, perhaps schitzophrenia. That made a lot more sense to me. Did I give anything away by saying this? Every review I read gave a theory on what the book was supposed to be about, so it seemed like fair game.

That's part of the beauty of the book; it's the kind of story where you really want someone else you know to read it so you can talk about it. This is going to be a great book for book clubs.

As I said, reads from booksellers have been vry strong. The book is the #1 Indie Bound pick for January.

I had some issues with the book, particularly with the mystery angle that seems to come out of nowhere. Tim's a lawyer, and has a lead on a case, but he loses the lead due to an outbreak of his wandering. There's a certain point where I wondered if the novel was going to turn into a thriller a la the Motherless Brooklyn detective with Tourette's. I'm going to give you some advice and not attach any baggage to that subplot (and you might well have, as editor Reagan Arthur is well known for her supremely crafted literary/mystery hybrids) as it is only a minor strand of the book. I think in the end, it's another avenue for the protagonist's frustration.

I also expected to be much more sympathetic to Jane's plight, but Ferris gave her so many issues that this was difficult. After some thought, I understood why this was done. Despite how hard it can be at times, you want the focus to be on Tim and Tim's illness, and not switch sympathies to Jane, so Ferris set up some roadblocks to prevent that from happening.

Wall Street Journal interview.

Maslin has issues.


If you don't regularly read our sister blog The Boswellians, you really should, particularly Jocelyn's new piece on our Salt-o-meter.

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