Friday, February 19, 2010

book review - The Unnamed - Joshua Ferris

"She had followed him from the courthouse steps across the Brooklyn Bridge. He shied his suit coat and his buttondown in the heat without stopping, without the least concern for how he looked to those he passed: a crazy man possessed. She picked up his discarded clothes and followed him into the heart of the borough. She trailed behind him, ready to seize on his first false move, at any subtle sign of fakery, but he never halted, he never paused. The city was a wading pool of cement heat. The buildings bleating with glare, the sidewalks pulsing with sunlight. The bus exhaust and then interminable miles made the long walk unbearable. But he never stopped. She watched him slog inside the KFC and collapse.
Now she looked at him with tears in her eyes. 'I'm sorry I didn't believe you,' she said."

Perhaps this is how American literature, post 9/11 and against a backdrop of an ongoing war on terror, is going to feel with a sense of disorientation and uncertainty at the heart of stories flowing from the pens of the likes of De Lillo, Roth, Safran Foer and of course Ferris.

Tim Farnsworth is a successful lawyer who lives in a house with 8 beds but just one wife and an overweight largely ignored daughter. He is selfish, self obsessed but on the face of it he is living the American dream but of course that's just on the face of it. Underneath Tim has a problem that no one seems to be able to fully understand from either a mental or a physical angle - his legs start moving and he has no control over them and cannot stop walking. He gets up in the middle of the night and then in the daytime and starts walking miles and miles until he collapses and sleeps. His wife Jane waits for the call to come and collect him from park benches, under bridges and the more than occasional police station.

As time goes on and the bouts of walking ebb and flow then return permanently he walks out not just on his job and his home but finally walks out on his wife, daughter and his sanity.

You never quite know why he is walking he has sought the medical advice of experts all over the world, Money is no object and he ploughs thousands into treatments but no one has a name for his condition and as a result he has to hide it from colleagues and all but his wife and daughter. The strain it puts on the family increases each time he has a bout of the walking condition.

The same sense of bottled despair that comes across in De Lillo's The Falling Man is on display here as you follow Tim as he pushes everything to one side in order to concentrate on battling his demons. His grief is a very personal one and he cannot explain to those around him why he has to deal with it alone and in the way he chooses. He causes hurt, heartbreak, frustration but not too much anger. In many way's the anger fails to appear because Tim is a victim just as much as those around him. No one really understands what is going on. This is an age of widespread uncertainty.

The experience of reading The Unnamed is nowhere near as difficult as you expect when you first pick up the book and start to get to grips with the subject. Just as with Then We Came to The End there is a humour here mixed in with raw pain and Ferris deliberately mixes up the pace. In Then We Came... he broke up the flow of the redundancy hit advertising office with the story of the boss and her battle against cancer. Here the pace is inverted with the story chugging along fairly steadily until Tim breaks free of the shackles and conventions of trying to live normally and keep a job going and starts to have a a full blown mental breakdown. Instead of it being a period for calm and reflection this is instead a section of the book that speeds the action up and delivers despair and the brutal effects of the illness in graphic detail.

Strange things are happening, almost like the biblical plagues with bees in their hundreds dead in the park and the birds dropping dead from the sky. This is a time of bleak portents with storms and tornado's coming when they are out of season. People who appear to be normal and in control slid into alcoholism, develop sexual quirks that wind up in courtrooms and behind the suits and ties most share the same uncertainty felt by Tim

"What is the rational explanation for the bees, Tim? The blackbirds? The fires? The floods? Do these things happen by accident, too?"

What drives Tim is never really made clear but he is a man wandering a country that doesn't seem to understand anything other than success. As the story unfolds a rich man is framed for the murder of his wife, the head of a law firm rejects the company of his own children to chase the dollar and the ill and strange are feared. As Tim finds when he crosses the barrier of respectability those who are homeless and different are the unnamed and treated differently. They are almost invisible to the successful as Tim finds when he comes across an old partner at the law firm years after his walking took over completely and when he meets the law on his travels.

"The cop looked at him. 'You got some place to go, wise guy?'
With a crude and mechanical deliberation he opened the wallet in his lap and removed a crisp sheaf of newly minted hundred-dollar bills and made their edges flop between his fingers. 'I can go anywhere I want.'
'Then get there,' said the cop.
'Your concern for my well-being is touching.'
The cop started to walk away.
'One might as well as if the State, to avoid public unease, could incarcerate all who are physically unattractive or socially eccentric,' he called out."

Ferris is writing about a country that has been walking into war and away from peace ever since the twin towers came down and often without knowing quite why it is doing so. As it marched into Iraq then Afghanistan was it doing so in the same automatic way that Tim Farnsworth strode down the highways? Maybe that is too literal a metaphor but it is the one that will stick in the mind. What drives America? It is an unnamed fear and anger stemming from an event that is still almost impossible to comprehend.

Two books in is Ferris "the great man of American letters" the cover lines make him out to be? Perhaps the field is opening with Updike, who's Rabbit Run echoes through this book, sadly gone and other big names reaching the end the next generation is standing up and is clearly there to be counted.

What keeps you reading a book that at moments is very close to tipping over the edge of the unbelievable is the characterisation. You do want to know what happens to Tim, his wife Jane and their relationship. making you care about that, just like he made you care about a bunch of people in a Chicago ad agency is his great skill.

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