I guess I don’t usually post reviews here, but I feel I have to for the book I just read, by Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed (Penguin, February 2010). Ferris is the author of one of my all-time favourites, the brilliantly funny Then We Came To The End, and I was understandably excited to get my hands on his new title. As I’ve discussed before, this book is a definite Status Galley. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to show this advance copy off in trendy coffee shops because I read it in two large bites in the comfort of my own home. Oh well.
Can I first give you the official blurb:
“Tim Farnsworth is a handsome, healthy man, ageing with the grace of a matinée idol. He loves his work. He loves his family. He loves his kitchen. And then one day he stands up and walks out on all of it. He cannot stop walking. And, as his body propels him relentlessly forward, deep into the unfamiliar outer reaches of the city, he begins to realise he is moving further and further from his old self, seemingly unable to turn back and retrieve what he has lost.”
The “Unnamed” of the title is a mysterious illness that compels Tim Farnsworth to walk. Despite the misleading blurb, we actually join the story at the third relapse of Tim’s walking compulsion, and begin to see the effect it has already had on his wife and daughter. We start to understand Tim’s true predicament: his illness is not one that anyone has heard of, or treated, before. This slow reveal is the best part of the narrative, with sly chronological shifts adding to the mysterious premise.
A fascinating set-up is complicated further with a sidebar courtroom drama, as Tim’s job as a high-flying corporate lawyer is endangered by his illness, and an important case is compromised (despite a fortuitous meeting with a strange man on a bridge with a knife). As Tim’s world slowly crumbles around him, he is forced to evaluate what is most important to him.
Where this book falls apart, I have to sadly admit, is in the third section, where Tim takes his fourth and fatal walk out the door. Having resurrected his marriage with long-suffering wife Jane, Tim relapses and sets off across the country. What has been up till now a fascinating literary concept turns into pages upon pages of “crazy talk” which, in and of itself is a clever enough representation of a man’s descent into madness, it really goes on too long. As he becomes more and more unhinged, as he cares less and less for his physical health, the narrative turns into a grab-bag of unappealing medical terminology and repeated tumble-turns of sanity.
This is a real pity, because at the centre of this book is a real heart, and the many passages (especially those between Tim and Jane) are extremely moving. I would recommend this book for its concept, for some extraordinary passages of writing, and the actual ambition of what is a very clever concept. And it did keep me up finishing it, so that has to count for something.
And, once more, Penguin completely has completely buggered up the cover (“Ooh! New Candace Bushnell! Wait a minute…”):
*Further to this, could The Unnamed by termed a “Neuronovel?” Read the fascinating article about this trend on n + 1