By Joshua Ferris
Reagan Arthur Books
The Unnamed, like Joshua Ferris' very fine first novel Then We Came to the End, is about people whose happiness is threatened because of the things they are compelled to do. In his debut, office drones spend their lives at jobs they hate but can't leave because they need the money. In The Unnamed, an undiagnosable disease forces a man to walk great distances, a sort of locomotive narcolepsy that makes him abandon his family and responsibilities. It's the flip side of TWCTTE: a man who desperately doesn't want to leave where he is.
Throughout this facile but absorbing book, characters debate the nature of the disease. Why does it vanish and then recur? Is the cause physical? Mental? In reality, it's metaphorical, in the same way TWCTTE isn't so much about work as "Work."
Inevitably, this limits the impact. One scene has Tim Farnsworth, the sufferer, walking away from his daughter despite desperately wanting to see her. Rather than being wrenching, it comes off as slapstick, recalling Jim Carrey arguing with his stubborn body in Liar Liar. Part of this is the fault of the writing (Ferris' more obvious attempts at lyricism tend to fall flat), but as presented, the premise is too goofy and open to loopholes to work.
There's a lot to admire here, but the qualities underscore the faults. Tim's wife and daughter are drawn so affectionately that the scenes without them seem lacking. And Tim himself, suspecting that the disease can't be beaten, is prosaic in his resignation. There is far more pathos in the issues the other characters suffers from: cancer, obesity, abandonment.
The Unnamed comes up a bit short, but Ferris is onto something. He knows people want to shed excess baggage from their lives but also gets that that baggage can serve as a necessary anchor. That conflict, between freedom and security, has been the resonant theme informing both of his novels so far. But by making the struggle both allegorical and literal, The Unnamed negates itself.