The Last Book I Loved: ‘The Unnamed’
When you go to the website for Joshua Ferris’s 2010 novel, The Unnamed, your screen fills with static for a second. Then it resolves into a grainy gray video of the main hall of Grand Central Terminal, like security camera footage, commuters walking to and from their trains. And then fuzzy blue circles appear over a handful of heads. When you click on one, the video pauses, and a small text bubble comes up. One says, “I look around, I wonder if I’m just sick.” Another quotes a poem by Percy Shelley. “Art thou pale for weariness / Of climbing heaven and gazing on earth/Wandering companionless / Among the stars that have a different birth.” They feel like a little of what each person has inside them, a bit of story or sorrow they keep inside themselves.
This is what Joshua Ferris’s work is — a song of this secret world. He writes about the isolation of modern life, our disconnect from the world at large and from the people around us. And he writes of the small, beautiful hopes of connection — through love, through hope, through body-breaking exertions.
The Unnamed is about a man named Tim who cannot stop walking. Tim comes home to Connecticut one night from his job at a high-powered New York law firm and tells his wife, simply, “It’s back.” She bundles him in winter gear, packs a bag with provisions and a GPS. She finally falls asleep in the middle of the night and wakes up to find Tim gone, walked out of the house to who knows where. In the grips of this condition he is driven to walk, for hours on end, stopping only when he collapses, exhausted. No one knows why. No one has a cure.
Is it a metaphor? Maybe. Is it a conceit? Sure. But it’s a starting place. Every story has to start somewhere, and Tim’s starts with “It’s back.” For the first dozen or so pages, you don’t even know what “it” is, and the suspense builds like really good sci-fi: something is wrong, and you don’t know what. Ferris takes this conceit and builds a full, rich story about it. All of the rules — as in the best sci-fi — hold tight. All of the repercussions feel deep and true to the human heart.
Tim has a wife, Jane, and they have a daughter named Becka. Tim’s condition ravages his life, but their lives are intertwined, and so it ravages them all. Becka reads her father stories while he’s handcuffed to the bed. Jane picks him up from parking lots and police stations and curbsides, and waits for the next call when he’s gone. She worries the call will never come.
Tim is at war with his body; his legs that won’t listen. Walking forces him to shed his attachment to his career, to comfort, to any sense of plan or control. Walking takes him out into the world, first within a radius of a seven or eight hour walk from his office or his home, but then farther afield. He is completely alone. All around him, the world is falling apart.
Tim’s world is a world frighteningly like ours, with superstorms and deep snow. The winters are too cold, the summers are filled with droughts, fires, and floods. A carpet of dead bees covers Madison Square Park. Birds fall out of the sky. The great cracks in the rightness of the world hover in the background of Tim’s life — just as they do in ours. Maybe Tim’s story is set just a couple of years into our future. Maybe that’s what our world is really going to be.
The real reason I loved this book is that this world — Tim’s condition, the ailing planet — is just the backdrop of the heart of Ferris’s story to nestle into.
Little bits of The Unnamed are stuck in my head. A man clinging to a telephone pole in a flood. A daughter and her father on a bench in Tompkins Square Park. A sense of loss. A sense of isolation. A sense of love. For all its desolation, for all its characters’ helplessness, it’s a hopeful book. Because even when they can’t connect, can’t reach each other’s inner world, they try. They valiantly, desperately try.
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