Friday, January 21, 2011

Book Review: The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris

The Unnamed
by Joshua Ferris
A Reagan Arthur Book
Little, Brown and Co., Hachette Book Group 
310 pages

Challenges: Reagan Arthur, 2nds, What's in a Name (life stage)

If this ever gets made into a movie (and I can definitely see it as such), there's only one song that is apropos as the track playing over the credits. 

"I was totin' my pack along the long dusty Winnemucca road,
When along came a semi with a high an' canvas-covered load.
"If you're goin' to Winnemucca, Mack, with me you can ride."
And so I climbed into the cab and then I settled down inside.
He asked me if I'd seen a road with so much dust and sand.
And I said, "Listen, I've traveled every road in this here land!"

I've been everywhere, man.
I've been everywhere, man.
Crossed the desert's bare, man.
I've breathed the mountain air, man.
Of travel I've had my share, man.
I've been everywhere."

Like the guy Johnny Cash sings of in "I've Been Everywhere," Tim Farnsworth has also been everywhere - and not exactly by choice.  He has a condition for which there is no name (hence the title of the novel) where his body is compelled to walk ... and walk ... then walk some more.  He's been to doctors, specialists, holistic practitioners, sleep clinics.  He's taken pills and vitamins, had multiple MRIs and body cleansings, worn helmets that promised to continually monitor his brain waves, and been handcuffed to a bed for months.  Always, there is the promise that there is the One Guy that holds the answers Tim desperately - and constantly - seeks.

And just like the guy in Johnny Cash's song, Tim also has a pack.  It's always at the ready, prepared by his long-suffering wife Jane (more on her in a bit) with all the essentials needed for a nightly stroll (usually in sub-freezing temperatures, it seems) that will likely end hours later and miles away, in the next town or perhaps the next state. Tim takes the pack to work, for his condition means that it's entirely possible that he'll be seized with the compulsion to walk out of the law firm where he is a workaholic, high-achieving partner.

(Although I would never want to have Tim's unnamed condition, I admit it could come in handy to have no control over the need to walk out of a boring-as-all-hell meeting.)

I've been to:
Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota,
Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota,
Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma,
Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma,
Bangor, Baltimore, Salvador, Amarillo,
Tocapillo, Baranquilla, and Perdilla, I'm a killer.
I've been everywhere, man ....

Ah yes, a killer.  Tim is the lead attorney on a high-profile case involving the firm's most lucrative client, and his unable to stop walking condition puts him into the path of someone who knows some information.  The question becomes one of whether Tim's compulsion to walk is because of searching for closure with this case, or something more?

Going with the first theory for a bit, I think that Ferris draws parallels between the case that is preoccupying Tim and the mysterious man who surfaces with the answers to the case.  Tim's client is accused of killing his wife, but maintains that he is an innocent man, falsely accused.  Tim can relate; because of circumstances he has no control over, he too is slowly killing his own wife and daughter.  The mystery man represents the answers he seeks, for if he figures out that solution to that particular puzzle, perhaps he can put the pieces of his life back together again.  But just like everything else in Tim's life, this is elusive - the answers, and the man itself.  You begin to wonder if he even exists. 

I've been to:
Boston, Charleston, Dayton, Louisiana,
Washington, Houston, Kingston, Texarkana,
Monterey, Faraday, Santa Fe, Tallapoosa,
Glen Rock, Black Rock, Little Rock, Oskaloosa,
Tennessee, Hennessey, Chicopee, Spirit Lake,
Grand Lake, Devils Lake, Crater Lake, for Pete's sake.

Ultimately, the novel does become something more. Like the layers of clothing that Tim wears to protect against frostbite and other elements of nature, there are so many layers to The Unnamed.  You could make a case that this is a novel about searching for answers, that we as humans have this innate desire to know the reasons why we are the way we are, why our personal circumstances are the way they are, and finding the purpose for one's life.  You could make the case that this is about relationships, how others we're close to are affected by the uncertainty of the words in sickness and in health and all the power those words hold. 

"The long matrimonial haul was accomplished in cycles. One cycle of bad breath, one cycle of renewed desire, a third cycle of breakdown and small avoidances, still another of plays and dinners that spurred a conversation between them late at night that reminded her of their like minds and the pleasure they took in each other's talk.  And then back to hating him for not taking out the garbage on Wednesday. That was the struggle. Sickness and death, caretaking, the martyrdom of matrimony - that was fluff stuff.  When the vows kick in, you don't even blink.  You just do." (pg. 20)

You could make the case that this is ultimately about making peace with oneself and one's loved ones, of accepting the way we are and those in our lives. 

And you'd be right, for The Unnamed is about all of these things, and author Joshua Ferris pulls this off incredibly well.  I loved his first novel Then We Came to the End (it was one of my favorite fiction books that I read in 2010) and this one is a pretty strong candidate to make it onto my favorite books read in 2011 list.  (The jury's still out on this.) 

I've been to:
Louisville, Nashville, Knoxville, Ombabika,
Schefferville, Jacksonville, Waterville, Costa Rica,
Pittsfield, Springfield, Bakersfield, Shreveport,
Hackensack, Cadillac, Fond du Lac, Davenport,
Idaho, Jellico, Argentina, Diamantina,
Pasadena, Catalina, see what I mean-a.

I've been to:
Pittsburgh, Parkersburg, Gravelbourg, Colorado,
Ellensburg, Rexburg, Vicksburg, Eldorado,
Larimore, Admore, Haverstraw, Chatanika,
Chaska, Nebraska, Alaska, Opelika,
Baraboo, Waterloo, Kalamazoo, Kansas City,
Sioux City, Cedar City, Dodge City, what a pity.

What Other Bloggers Thought:

Asylum (this review in particular is why I love book bloggers; I had no idea that the titles of each of the sections of the book were lines from an Emily Dickinson poem, which is included in the Asylum review.  Reading that makes complete sense.  Thank you!)

The Book Lady's Blog
Books I Done Read
Books in the City (audio)
Buried in Print
Capricious Reader
Chew and Digest Books
Fizzy Thoughts
Follow the Thread
Life with Books
The Literary Stew
Maw Books
Presenting Lenore
Reading Matters
Redlady's Reading Room (audio)
S. Krishna's Books
Sasha and the Silverfish
She Is Too Fond of Books (audio)

Who did I miss?

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Dorothea said...

Here is another post about this book on our blog Living2Read:

I love your connection to the Johnny Cash song.

K A B L O O E Y said...

Sounded interesting when I first heard about it; glad to know you liked it so much. Just started The Imperfectionists, and finished the really excellent Knowing Jesse, which is Marianne Leone's memoir/ love letter to her son. (It also, with fury and humor, sheds light on what it was like to advocate for her special needs child in a hostile envronment.)

Elizabeth said...

I think I already said so, but I loved this book and felt that it was a sort of marriage/existential parable.

Booksnyc said...

Thanks for linking to my review!

I love your idea of your song for the soundtrack - it is perfect!

I am glad you liked the book - it is excellent.