Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 63 (4/7) -- The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

Second novels are tough. First novels are sweated over, touched up, smoothed out and polished to a high sheen -- they have to be, or they wouldn't get published in the first place. The second novel, on the other hand, is what that same writer can get done in the year or two immediately following publication of the first book -- generally with an editor calling every month or so to remind him of the deadline, and all of the accompanying weight of a publishing schedule hungry for content. There may be a few great second novels out there, and possibly even one or two that came out hot on the heels of a first book, but the odds are much stronger in favor of that first book -- or, even better, the fourth or fifth, once the writer has settled down and figured out what he can do and what he's good at.

The Unnamed is a second novel; it follows Ferris's incandescently reviewed Then We Came to the End. (Full disclosure: I loved it, too.) The reviews for Unnamed haven't been quite as kind, though Unnamed isn't anything near a failure. But Unnamed is a more conventional literary novel, set somewhere in the post-DeLillo territory of inexplicable afflictions and marriages tested to destruction, and so it feels like a step backwards after the swirling, all-enveloping multiple first person voice of Then We Came to the End.

Tim Farnsworth is the kind of lawyer that makes workaholics look like slackers, solidly in the middle of a stellar litigation career at a major Manhattan firm (Troyer, Barr and Atkins, LLP), with a family (wife Jane and daughter Becca) that he claims to love but can't possibly see more than glancingly. He's in his early forties: a powerful partner working on an important criminal case for a major client from the corporate side of Troyer, Barr. He loves his work, loves to stay at the office past ten at night -- having been a commuter myself, I tried to work out how Tim would actually have time to get back home to his leafy suburb, let alone get a few hours of sleep, and couldn't quite make it work -- and loves the position he has.

But Tim has a problem: twice before, an unknown malady -- which he insists is purely physical and not psychological -- has driven him to walk, uncontrollably, in a straight line until he collapses, at unexpected times over a period of months. The first recurrence was several years before, and he thinks that it won't come back. But, of course, it does.

So Tim is compelled to walk: he can't control when, and can't control where. All he can do is hold on, and call Jane to be picked up when his legs drop him, exhausted, hours later. (My science-fictional mind did wonder if he could short-circuit the walks by going around blocks or neighborhoods; Ferris explicitly says that his compulsion obeys traffic signals, and keeps him walking only in safe directions. But this is a novel about lack of control and about walking away from things, so that must remain unexplored.)

That is, we all must agree, one honking big metaphor to plop down as the center of a novel, and one has to admire Ferris's chutzpa at being so blatant with it. And Ferris's writing is as strong and supple as it was in Then We Came to the End -- his sentences and paragraphs just as quotable, just as much of a joy to read. But his characters are thin, with Tim and Jane and Becca never turning into three-dimensional people but remaining each a sheaf of specific traits. The characters in Then We Came weren't any deeper, to be honest, but there were vastly more of them, and en masse they formed a larger group-mind that took on all of their traits and foibles.

The Unnamed is entirely about Tim's mystery ailment, and, to be more specific, it's entirely about the effects that ailment has on Tim and Jane. The other lawyers in Tim's firm are mostly just names, with a single personality trait; R.H. Hobbs, his client accused of murder, is just a rich man who claims he didn't do anything; even Becca stays secondary, developing a career and husband and life off the page as the novel goes on. So The Unnamed is entirely about Tim and Jane's marriage -- and almost entirely from Tim's point of view. I'm afraid Tim isn't an inherently interesting character, though -- he's a dull lawyer, focused on grinding through to the end through pure willpower, and that attitude comes out in his walking as well. We spend most of The Unnamed inside Tim's skull, and it's simply not that interesting a place -- even once he succumbs entirely to the walking, he doesn't think about its source, or even go interestingly loopy. He stays the same one-step-after-another lawyer that he always was.

The Unnamed is a serious literary novel, which should give you an idea of how it goes on and ends; it does conclusively complete the story of Tim and Jane by its last page. It is worth reading -- particularly to those who read and enjoyed Then We Came to the End -- but it's not satisfying in the ways that it should be, and Ferris leaves that gigantic metaphor unexamined, expecting the reader to understand it entirely by implication and allusion. But it is the kind of slight misstep that a reader has to expect from a serious, ambitious writer, so there's every reason to believe that Ferris's third novel -- and his fourth, and his tenth -- will be at least as good as this one, and that several of them will be as good or better than Then We Came to the End.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Red Sparowes - The Fear Is Excruiating, But Therein Lies the Answer
via FoxyTunes

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