‘The Unnamed’ by Joshua Ferris

TheUnnamed

Fiction – paperback; Viking; 320 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Imagine if you were afflicted with a disease that defies medical explanation, a disease that compels you to drop everything and just walk… and walk… and walk until you become so mentally and physically exhausted you just fall asleep wherever you find yourself — in a snowy field, a parking lot, behind a fast food outlet or on a stranger’s front porch. That’s what happens to Tim Farnsworth, the protagonist, in this deliciously different novel, the second by New York-based writer Joshua Ferris.

Tim’s secret

When the book opens, Tim is in his late 40s and “ageing with the grace of a matinee idol”. He’s a rich, successful partner in one of New York’s leading law firms and is happily married to Jane, with whom he has a teenage daughter, Becka.

But Tim has a secret. He has an unnamed disease which no amount of traditional or alternative medical help has been able to understand much less cure. In fact, no one seems to know whether it’s a legitimate medical disorder or a mental illness. Even Tim wonders whether he is losing the plot when the compulsion to go on a walk hits him, but there is nothing he can do to stop it. (These walks can last from a few hours, to days, to weeks and even months.)

The only saving grace is that the disease occurs in episodes, often years apart, and when it reappears they put time-tested procedures into place to ensure he doesn’t walk off, never to be found again: he carries a backpack containing vital necessities, including warm clothing and a GPS, with him at all times; Jane and Becka take turns to babysit him; and when things get especially bad he is handcuffed to the bed.

Despite this, Tim insists on holding down a demanding full-time job (as a litigator in a murder trial), although it’s not long before his employers lose patience with his unscheduled disappearances. Similarly, Jane finds the situation stressful and upsetting, often having to get up in the middle of the night to collect Tim from his latest compulsive walk miles and miles from home.

Ups and downs over 20 years

I won’t say much more about the plot other than it charts Tim’s life over the space of some 20 years and details the impact of his condition of colleagues, clients and family.

What I will say is just how much I enjoyed reading this book (I read it in one sitting having taken a day off work to get over a rather horrible chesty cold). The narrative is fast-moving and interweaves Tim’s medical problems with a murder trial that has an element of danger to it. The characterisation is superb, especially as each of the Farnsworths changes and develops over time (Tim loses his cocksure lawyerly arrogance, Jane loses her ability to cope, Beckah emerges out of her Goth-like teenage phase).

And to cap it all off, there’s plenty of “issues” to chew over, including office politics, how work can rule our lives but also give meaning to it, our perception of mental illness, the conflict between body and soul, and how families deal with complicated, life-threatening medical problems.

At times the book is emotional, without being overly sentimental, but it’s also thrilling (where will Tim’s walks lead to next? what dangers will he confront?) and incredibly witty (especially the bit about the bicycle helmet — and the dead toe).

But ultimately The Unnamed is a romance between two people, thrust into an extraordinary situation that tests their love to the limits. It’s also a lovely story about the relationship between fathers and daughters (the scenes in which Tim and 17-year-old, overweight Becka bond as they watch DVD boxed sets of Buffy are especially touching — and witty).

And, finally, I can’t write an entire review without mentioning the similarities with Audrey Niffenegger’s Time Traveler’s Wife, although I’m sure I won’t be the first person to do so: a husband, afflicted by an unexplainable medical condition, disappears without warning for long periods of time while his dutiful wife waits patiently for his unannounced return.

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25 thoughts on “‘The Unnamed’ by Joshua Ferris

  1. I was thinking that this one sounds similar to TTTW in many ways and then you mentioned it! What an interesting concept for a novel and a character – I will have to keep an eye out for as your review has hooked me in.

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  2. The comparison with TTTW hit me right away, but in other reviews I’ve seen online (by mainstream press) no one seems to have mentioned it. I thought it would have been obvious.
    The Unnamed was certainly an enjoyable read… and a bit different. As usual, I just enjoyed the New York setting!

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  3. I largely agree with your review. I was one of the few who did not love Then We Came To The End. I thought The Unnamed was a far superior story, if less original stylistically. The diner scene, well, it’s outrageously good.

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  4. Oh thank goodness for this review I was sent this and almost gave it away because I didnt really ‘get’ he debut novel, it left me feeling a bit ‘meh’ but now I will have to read this and put it back on the TBR list where I took if from only this weekend. Looking forward to this one lots and lots now.

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  5. I love the blogosphere – a very serendipitously timed review Kim. I have just scored a very cheap copy of Ferris’ Then We Came to the End and was contemplating this next book of his. It was on my pre-order list and then I took it off. Oh well – I will read Then We Came to the End first and then follow it up with The Unnamed a bit later – great to read your positive review.

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  6. I’ve not read his first novel, so can’t say whether this one is better or not. But I think you might like it… and it’s very readable. I ate up the pages really quickly!

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  7. Ah well, the world would be a very boring place if we all liked the same things, wouldn’t it, Judy? Funnily enough, I thought the bit where Tim met the man on the bridge was really intriguing because you began to wonder whether Tim might, in fact, be a little bit insane. You start to doubt his credibility, which, in my opinion, made the book more interesting… It also added an element of danger to the story.

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  8. I can’t say that there’s all that much humour in this book, so there may not be enough wit to win you over! And not having read his previous book, I cannot really tell you whether this one is better, worse or completely different by comparison.

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  9. Technically, my copy came with an embargo of February 22, but I decided to ignore it when I saw all the reviews by the mainstream press go online over the weekend. Plus, the book’s been available in the USA for yonks, so if people want to read a review they only have to do an internet search to find about six trillion of the things. My piddly little one ain’t going to destroy any mystery about the impending publication of it in the UK. Hopefully, it might actually encourage a few more to add it to the wishlist!

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  10. Is that a criticism, Tony? Sometimes you just have very good runs… and everything you pick up is worthy of a four-star review. I find that my tastes are more discriminating these days… I only tend to pick up books I have a fairly good idea that I will like.

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  11. I’m currently working on my review of The Unnamed and think I’m one of the few who didn’t fall in love with this book. It started strong, but the second half dragged for me. Oh well…

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  12. I actually think this is one of those books you either love or hate, because I have seen quite a lot of positive and negative reviews. The important thing is to review it honestly, no? And as long as you can back up your claims then if you didn’t like it, you didn’t like it.

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  13. It sounds like I am going to have to track down a copy of Then We Came to the End. I certainly like the sound of the blurb, especially the whole corporate life thing, but the reviews on Amazon aren’t particularly glowing.

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  14. I just finished & posted my own review of The Unnamed today. I’ve had a hard time getting into any new novels this past year, but I loved this one. It reminded me of Time Traveler’s Wife, too.

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