Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Joshua Ferris’s first novel, Then We Came to the End, won rave reviews for
its artful and humorous look at office life.  The book was honored with the
PEN/Hemingway Award, and announced the arrival of a fresh, young talent on
the scene.   Most writers would be tempted to follow such a success with a
similar recipe for their second novel.  But not Ferris, who decided that, instead
of tinkering with the formula, he ought to turn it upside
down.  In
The Unnamed, his follow-up effort, he presents
a dark, unsettling personal tragedy that is a world away
from the élan of his award-winning debut book.  

Tim Farnsworth has a peculiar medical affliction, one that
is so rare that it lacks even a name.  He periodically
experiences an irresistible urge to walk…and walk and
walk, until he collapses from exhaustion.  When he
awakes, he is lucid and again in control of his actions,
but before long—and often at the least favorable
moments—his legs again take control of him.   Remember
that interlude in
Forrest Gump, when the title character
embarks on an obsessive run that covers the whole
country?   Stretch that concept out for an entire novel, and you have some idea
The Unnamed.  

Farnsworth’s affliction puzzles the medical profession.  The various specialists
who examine him in turn each fail to arrive at a treatment or event a
diagnosis.   The psychologists and psychiatrists have their chance as well, and
are no more successful in unlocking the mystery of the walking man.   An article
is published in
The New England Journal of Medicine, but if it establishes
Farnsworth as a notable case it does nothing to rectify or even identify his
anomalous situation.

I mentioned above that
The Unnamed is a tragedy, but is that really the case?  
In tragedy, we deal with a character’s choices and their consequences, but in
this story the most salient fact is that our protagonist does not choose.  His self-
destructive actions are outside of his control.  The resulting narrative is eventful
but often leaves the reader distinctly disengaged.  Events transpire at an
almost organic or cellular level, and thus become as morally neutral as the
efforts of the character’s circulatory system digestive tract.   Instead of drama,
the story presents us with a recalcitrant biology.

Farnsworth’s story does inspire speculation on a host of philosophical issues,
ranging from free will to the existence of God.  If our hero isn't responsible for
his walking, who is?  At times, Ferris seems ready to seize this opportunity and
turn his book into a novel of ideas—a daring but commendable move at a time
when most works of fiction seem focused on story lines suitable for lucrative
movie adaptations.    But Ferris seems uncomfortable taking this final step, and
his character’s philosophical musings quickly collapse into the quasi-
schizophrenic mutterings of the mentally ill.  Farnsworth has now been
transformed into the ultimate passive vessel, both physically and mentally.

Ferris tries to situate this tale of personal collapse into the context of
Farnsworth’s family life and career.    He even mixes in elements of a murder
mystery—a promising subplot that is eventually left hanging, as is much else in
this book.  In the final analysis, the storyline here could be summed up in two
words, the opposite of E. M. Forster’s famous dictum:  Only disconnect!   
Farnsworth starts the novel as a successful lawyer, a husband and father, a
paragon of responsibility and dedication to principle.   But each of these
connections will be stretched and sometimes sundered during the course of
.   Overwhelmed by his unruly legs, Farnsworth soon abandons any
hope of a cure, and gradually becomes willing to settle for less and less in his
struggles against his affliction.

It is revealing that the most engaging part of this novel comes when Ferris
abandons his melancholy story for a few pages and returns to a comic
presentation of the follies of office life—a reminder of the esprit of his previous
novel.  Farnsworth, in an attempt to engage his daughter in conversation,
starts relating gossipy anecdotes about his colleagues at the law firm. This
humorous interlude, unlike anything else in
The Unnamed, is brilliantly conceived
and reminds us how Ferris made earned his reputation as a storyteller in the
first place.

But the energy level of the narrative soon dissipates, as our walking man starts
walking again.   At a late point in the novel, our hero wonders if he should have
been paying more attention to what was happening around him on his lengthy
journeys.   How many exciting sub-plots did he miss, while he just doggedly
kept pushing one foot ahead of the other?  I imagine more than a few readers
of this book will be asking themselves the same question.
The Unnamed

by Joshua Ferris
Great Books Guide
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