Saturday, July 24, 2010

Review: The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris

I've been looking forward to reading Joshua Ferris' latest novel since I first got it at a book signing in February.  I loved Ferris' first novel, Then We Came to the End, and I'm not too proud to admit to a having developed a bit of an intellectual crush on him, due in part to the fact that I'm generally surrounded by television-obsessed engineers.  It was for this reason that I waited so long to finally pick The Unnamed back up--I wanted to be in a frame of mind that would allow me to both enjoy and think about what I was sure would be another great read.  Don't get me wrong--it's not not a decent read, but my anticipation was such that once I finished the novel, I had a general reaction of, "Huh." 

The novel, for those of you who haven't read it, is about Tim Farnsworth, a partner in a law firm, a husband, a father, who suffers from an unnamed condition which compels him to walk.  He drops whatever he is doing and walks outside wearing whatever is he is wearing, and he doesn't come back until his wife finds him and brings him home.

Here's the thing about this book: "the unnamed" object shifts throughout, beginning as his condition and morphing into a spirituality that only exists when he's off his psychiatric meds.  There are lines drawn between body / mind, with Tim ultimate focus being the development and use of logic and reason.  When his condition cannot be diagnosed, and some suggest his walking is a mental rather than physical disorder, the foundation of his beliefs about himself are shaken.  When he ultimately leaves his wife and daughter to trek alone, his mental functions generally shut down and he becomes a purely physical being, walking, sleeping, eating.

But his corporal body begins to crumble--he loses toes and fingers to frostbite, loses weight, develops a number of physical ailments from the elements.  It is at this point that the connection between body / mind / soul is drawn:
"Do you remember that doctor one time, he told us about the blood-brain barrier?  Now, that's a distinction.  On the one hand you've got the blood, just dumb as a train full of rocks, important rocks but dumb dumb dumb, and on the other hand the brain, which is where, you know, the me and the you, where the me and the you come from, and with this barrier in place, you keep the bastard out, you see.  Integrity is maintained.  There's a beautiful sanctity, when you think about it, a really holy and reverent sancity that keeps the pure godlike oarts frm misxing with the rank and baser stuff, the rot, the decay, the blood, the rocks.  That's where the real armies of God are, right there on that blood-brain barrier, doing God's work,  I mean, that isthe real frontline in the battle between [...] the body and the soul.  The blood-brain barrier and the synapses are the two main fronts.  You've got both sides fighting for control of the dendrites and the axons and what all else I don't know."
While Tim eventually learns to incorporate his mind into the physical exertion of his body, the book is generally mum about whether or not he manages to do the same with his soul... or whether the soul even exists.  I suppose some would read it as an encouragement to bring the spirit into our everyday life, but others might get distracted by the fact that God or the soul are only really mentioned when Tim is in the grip of what seems to be a manic phase of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Here's what I'm discovering about Ferris: he has a point, I'm sure he does, but he pulls back from making it at the very last minute (he did the same thing at the end of Then We Came to the End, softening his punches in a somewhat disappointing manner).  He leaves us to draw our own conclusions, but he doesn't present enough solid evidence for either side, and so the entire endeavor feels like an exercise in futulity.  I'm sorry to say I was a bit disappointed by The Unnamed and as of right now I'm not sure I can recommend reading it.  Darn.


Clotheshorse NYC said...

I just read this book and really enjoyed it. I came to my own conclusions that he was a schizophrenic because so much in the writing pointed in that direction. I enjoyed the way he wrote about the "illness" in a vague manner as I am sure it must feel this way to people suffering from a mental disturbance. I also really enjoyed the love story and found it truly heartbreaking at times. Thanks for sharing your review.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Hi Clotheshorse NYC! When I first read the book, I would have been right there with you in regards to the schizophrenia. I seem to remember, though, at Ferris' book signing that he mentioned the illness was fictional (don't quote me on that in case I'm wrong), but I'm not sure he wanted us to label it one way or another, but it's so tempting in today's day of age.

Now that I've had time to think about it, though, I can't help but wonder if Ferris was trying to draw a parallel with Tennyson's "Ulysses," with "the unnamed" disease really just being restlessness and a kind of yearning for freedom:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.


One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

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