Ideally, this post would go: “Dude, I just read The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris, and it was frakking awesome.” And then it’d end there. But I think I have to at least try to articulate what a marvel this book is, although this is obviously going to be a struggle for me.
Nearly everyone praised this book to the highest heavens. And though I am justifiably distrustful of the hype, there was just something about this book. Something that said, “You will like me, you will like me a lot.” Since it came out, I had this near-eerie conviction that this book was going to be one that would break my heart, and I would love it all the more for it.
It’s all simple, really. Tim Farnsworth stands up, and walks. He doesn’t know why this is exactly. The premise seems like it’s right out of a fairytale, or an urban legend: Once upon a time, there was a man who couldn’t stop walking. And the strangeness would have to collide with the so-called mundane: Tim Farnsworth and his wife Jane, and their daughter Becka, trying to make sense of a life with their father’s unnamed and unnamable disease. And then, then, that life discovery and life-affirming meandering shtick at the end. Neat in its Epic design.
Was she up for this? She lay in bed under the covers, her breath visible in the slant moonlight. Really up for it? The long matrimonial haul was accomplished in cycles. One cycle of bad breath, one cycle of renewed desire, a third cycle of break down 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. She had to be up for it.
I fully expected this to be a We Will Weather On kind of book. Tim gets this disease, there’s your usual heartache and pain—but they weather on. The marriage going through your usual marriage-y stuff, and he goes out to walk at inopportune times. They’re not supposed to fall apart, I somehow thought. Then again, I still somehow thought that this was a morality tale. And damn it, thank god it wasn’t. That is, Thank goodness they’re human to fall apart.
Tim’s walking could be a metaphor for so many things. Those indefinable situations we find ourselves in—depression mostly (how to explain the bleakness?), sex addiction (yes, I went there), even menopause. Or menstrual cramps. That thing that sets us apart from the people we love, the thing most unwelcome—and even more confounding because there’s no way to explain it, no way to make it real for the other.
Jane’s wavering, and then her deterioration—then the struggle to keep herself whole. Becka’s initial mistrust, her shame, and then how she steps up. Tim’s Unnamed. And then there’s real life. The parallelisms, the marked differences. Tim keeps walking away. Over and over.
Ferris makes it seem like a splintering is inevitable: There is the Tim Who Wants to Stay Still, and the Tim Who Has to Walk. I believe him. The conversations between these “two,” the eloquence of the rupturing. It’s fascinating. You don’t want to witness the pain, but you can’t resist the invitation. Tim has waged war with The Unnamed.
“You go on and on about how cold and hungry you are,” he said. “The night is long, you say. Good shoes are not just a luxury. But then you’re off and there’s no appeal. There’s no explanation for your behavior and no memory of your complaints. Are you not still cold? Are you not hungry? What is your purpose, your aim, but to hurt us both into suffering and darkness? Speak to me! You destroy my life, you rob me of my will, you troll me through the streets like meat on a hook. You have laid plain all my limitations and my total illusion of freedom. To what end? What do you gain from this?”
The other limped along steadily, saying nothing.
As in all epics, as in every hero’s life—to quote Ferris’ first novel—And Then We Came to the End. I could feel Ferris not wanting it to end, and I sympathize with him: It can’t end in this court room, it can’t end on this bridge, it can’t end in these woods, it can’t end in this hospital bed, it can’t end in this apartment, it can’t end with a grandchild on your knee. Tim keeps walking, and I refer here to the trite expression. He keeps walking. He doesn’t know why he does, he doesn’t know why it won’t end. There are very few things he knows.
But he was not so far gone, for when he saw her in the hospital bed, swimming in that awful blue gown, he knew at once what it had all been for, why he had started off and why he had struggled, and it wasn’t to win, it wasn’t for God, and it wasn’t stubbornness or pride or courage. He went to her and she looked at him standing over her. All time and distance between them collapsed, and without any mental searching for the word, he said to her, “Hello, banana,” and then reached out to take her hand.
I say it again. I just read The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris, and it was frakking awesome. [EDIT TO ADD:] And, of course, where are my manners? I not-so-subtly asked Kael, “Are you reading this one?” Even if he’s answered No to each of the twenty-seven times I’d asked him that ever since I found out he owned this book. You gave in. Hah.