In Which Joshua Ferris Diagnoses Us All In The Unnamed
Monday, January 25, 2010 at 10:28AM
Alex in BOOKS, durga chew-bose, joshua ferris

The Many Compulsions of Joshua Ferris


She puffed out her cheeks like someone about to burst, eyes popping wide. Then she settled into a grin shaded with resignation. “It’s my one go-around,” she said. “What do you do—hate yourself till the bitter end?”
“I’ve always thought you were the most beautiful girl in the world.”
“You’ve always been biased.”
“I’m glad you don’t hate yourself.”
“Acceptance,” she said. She shrugged. “It’s a bitch.”

Standing behind a wooden podium at the West 82nd Street Barnes and Noble, Joshua Ferris reads from his second novel, The Unnamed. He pauses after this last bit as if acknowledging the audience’s all but united, nearly inaudible sigh. Rife with pressing and existential questions, and at times overwhelmed with corporeal images of a tortured body and landscape, Ferris reads this quieter, more yielding part — a bittersweet reunion between father and daughter — with a slower, more deliberate pace.

ferris' officeDuring the Q&A, hands shoot up. The popular focus: Tim Farnsworth, the protagonist of the novel, and his harrowing, unidentified disease best described as a sudden, irrepressible urge to walk. This compulsion damages his family, his friendships, his career — partner at a successful New York firm — and provokes philosophical and sometimes spiritual enquiries, while physically inflicting the most grotesque, frost bitten, skin peeling, swelling, burning, assault from the elements on his once healthy and handsome body. Gone were the days…

In response to some of the more metaphorical readings, Ferris is quick to express his expectations for a literal appraisal of Tim’s illness, rather than an allegory for the way we live our lives: “Treat this like a real disease…like a cancer,” he recommends. Apologizing for perhaps appearing too vehement in his expectation, and understanding the inevitability of multiple interpretations, Ferris remains bound to, as if championing above all, a precise grasp and accurate reading of this particular disease.

Conceivably, this might be why he chose to read an excerpt less fixed on the disease and its physical and mental effects but on a moment between family; largely what I found most compelling in the novel. In a society consumed by the legitimizing reassurance of diagnosis, the Farnsworths are never offered any guarantee or explanation about Tim’s strange walking bouts.

One of many doctors attempts to empathize: “I know how you’ve struggled to validate your condition...I know you’ve fallen into depression because no empirical evidence has emerged to exonerate you.” The hope offered in a name, in a baptism of this disease, would absolve the family’s pain. Their life, their norms, their vows, and their respective roles—father to daughter, wife to husband, husband to wife, mother to daughter—undergo an unorthodox but necessary shift. The immediacy of survival reinvents responsibilities within their home; but at what cost?

But the novel finds its character, finds those kernels that readjust the reader in his or her seat as if to fully consume a sentence or idea, when it sheds the persistent, more clinical voice. Once the family reorganizes itself around Tim’s disease, a candid telling takes off.

Jane, Tim’s wife, wonders about the “matrimonial haul.” Is she prepared, and in more hilarious bits, ‘equipped,’ for another round of retrieving her husband from bizarre and far away locations in the middle of the night? And yet, her commitment and love is unflinching: “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.”

Later in the novel, Jane reckons with a darker period in her life, one that Ferris describes tenderly but stops short of letting breathe a little longer. There are the occasional moments of temptation when Jane’s pitter patter is excited by another man, a better life — “Her heart leapt. It was a girl’s heart.” — but those instances are rarely revisited. Jane’s superhuman, unrelenting devotion is hard to appreciate because the history of their love is never shared.

Ferris really pinches at something real when describing the daughter, Becka. She is an overweight, solitary teenager who sometimes evokes the most pressing kind of sadness — unspoken desperation — and other times coolly assumes a level of responsibility within her family that shines a light on her inborn mellowness and maturity.

In one of my favorite parts, diverging from the novel’s prevailing sense of commotion, Becka and Tim watch disc after disc of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Together, they are a pair of unapologetic, idle adolescents. And though their Buffy imparted inertia is a symptom of some greater crossroads within their family, this shared surrender is sweet and reminds us of the irreplaceable nature of family. In passages like this last one, Ferris’ confident style returns and the novel’s otherwise perverse preoccupation with despair pales.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here.

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