Entertainment Books

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Review: The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

(Penguin, £12.99)

Brian Lynch

Tim Farnsworth has a disease: he can't stop walking. It's so bad that he begs Frank, the security man at his office, "to grab his arms, tackle him, hold him back somehow". Neither of them sees a little girl who has broken away from her mother on the pavement. Tim knocks her to the ground. The girl starts crying. Everyone, including Frank, stops to stare. But Tim keeps walking.

Reviewers have compared The Unnamed unfavourably to Ferris's first novel, Then We Came to the End, a comedy about an advertising agency, which won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. The reviewers, as often happens with genuinely original work, have got the wrong end of the stick: not only are the comic and the tragic closely allied but here what binds them together is a sophisticated writerly intelligence.

Tim is a partner in his law firm. He lives in the suburbs of New York with his wife Jane and daughter Becka. He should be an Everyman, as happily unhappy as the next man. But he has a mind that is going nowhere, and in protest his body, specifically his legs, take over.

Against his will, he repeatedly pursues his thoughts and is pursued by them until he collapses from exhaustion. Then doctors, psychiatrists and psychotropic drugs try to cure him -- in vain.

The life Tim leads is meaningless. Even the plot lines of the novel in which he is the central character are incapable of being tied up -- for a while the reader is fooled into believing (and hoping) that there is a murder mystery to be solved, a bit like a John Grisham courtroom thriller. But Ferris is pitiless: nothing external, not even walking from one side of America to the other, can save Tim from his fate. He is "an immigrant living in a country of his dreams whose fickle authorities could nevertheless decide without warning to take him into custody, nullify his freedom and dispatch him to sorrow and dust".

The American background is important. This is the land of Dunkin' Donuts, parking lots and vast empty supermarkets. It is also a country where "political torturers" know how to get hold of someone like Tim and "really work him down until there is nothing left, he will never walk again, there is just a mad little smile maybe".

All that is left then is the memory of a David Bowie song: 'News guy wept and told us . . . earth was really dying . . . cried so much his face was wet'. But when Tim tells his daughter he would be happy with that, she hangs up the phone. Ferris is sympathetic to the madman, but he judges his behaviour harshly, not least because of the pain the illness inflicts on his family.

It would be a mistake, however, to overplay the Americanness. What Ferris does is to domesticate the European nightmares of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett (who wrote a book called The Unnamable, the hero of which can't move at all). And when the reader is reminded of American writers it is of geniuses whose work surpasses local interest. The first of these is Herman Melville -- Tim is a variation of Melville's great character Bartleby.

The chief influence, though, is the poet Emily Dickinson. The book is modelled on one of her most intense poems, which begins: "After great pain, a formal feeling comes". The last 63 pages, in fact, are a brilliant expansion of that poem's last lines: "This is the Hour of Lead/Remembered, if outlived/As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow/First -- Chill -- then Stupor -- then the letting go."

The Unnamed is not an easy read. The deliberately awkward style is sometimes just too mannered. For example: "She kept her hair in barettes as a way of doing something with her hair at least." And when a novelist wills unremitting misery on his hero, the reader can't help but resist the tedium of expectation. That being said, Ferris is a talent of the first order.

Brian Lynch's novel The Winner of Sorrow is published by New Island

Irish Independent

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