Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

I've just finished reading The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. It tells the story of Tim Farnsworth, a partner in a New York law firm who is overwhelmed by an impulse to walk. By the time the book opens, he has already investigated every branch of medicine and every avenue of alternative treatment to find out what is wrong with him and how he might be cured. He has been in remission for a while, but now the strange urge is back.  He cannot resist it. All he can do, at the end of each walk, when exhaustion overcomes the automatic movement of his legs, is call his wife and tell her where he's ended up so that she can find him and bring him home. They try one last device, a helmet that measures his brainwaves, to see if an explanation can be found for what is happening. It fails, Tim loses his job, fails a client charged with murder and eventually abandons his wife and daughter for a life spent permanently trudging across America.

This all sounds fairly unremitting and bleak, but The Unnamed also encompasses a love story (that between Tim and his wife), a touching account of a father's relationship with his daughter and a whodunnit. All the same, the bulk of the book deals with a single figure moving through the landscape by himself. Obviously, this means that Ferris has less opportunity to build up a rounded sense of the main characters than he did in his last novel, when he was portraying people in a group. Where that earlier book began in the first person plural, this one is a tale of being alone - but that is, I think, its theme. As we read the story of Tim's solitary travails - his struggle to 'be more than the sum of his urges' and to understand the parts of his existence that defy rational argument - 'So all your life you've searched and searched for a rational explanation ....while presuming there is one. But if there isn't?' 'There must be.' - we become conscious, inevitably, of our own essential aloneness.

And so we follow Tim through his long ordeal, observing him as he realises how much of his life has been spent carelessly - 'He wondered what kind of life he might have had if he had paid attention from the beginning.' - and as he discovers the animal pleasures of responding to his body's simplest needs - 'He wanted a drink of water. It was deliciously painful, his thirst, a thought to relish quenching'. We are watching him, we are not with him but outside - this is not a first person narrative - but we too are human, like him. His may be an extreme and especially puzzling imperative, but perhaps it is only a more dramatic version of the imperative we must all obey - the imperative to exist.

Each one of us has been given a life. We must live it, but few - if any - among us know why. Is it a task, or an opportunity? Like Tim, who 'discharged the walks with dutiful resignation, the way a busy hangman leaves for the day without scruple or gripe', we discharge our allotted time spans - there is very little else that we can do.

In the course of the novel, Ferris presents various possible answers to the question of existence. He suggests that science has become our new religion - 'They had always had faith ... in the existence of the One Guy, out there somewhere ... It was the One Guy they sought in Rochester, Minnesota, in San Francisco, in Switzerland and, closer to home, in doctors' offices from Manhattan to Buffalo' - but demonstrates that science fails in the face of true mystery, (at least in Tim's case). He dangles the possibility of a metaphysical, religious explanation, before reminding us that Tim's 'medication required tweaking from time to time.'

The Unnamed is a book that tackles the greatest and oldest of all the questions. It attempts to describe the unknown, the strange, the 'unnamed'. Ferris writes powerfully, plunging deep into his imagination (I hope he is not writing from experience) to produce a vivid portrait of an abandoned soul in torment. Somehow he avoids ever being boring. He is one of the most original writers working today.

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