Joshua Ferris’ first novel was laugh-out-loud funny, let alone a perfect cynical take on the downsizing of corporate America. I eagerly anticipated his second novel, and I wasn’t disappointed. Still, I don’t think it’s for every reader. The Unnamed explores an interesting premise of how sickness can ruin a life, and it’s captivating for its inventiveness. But it’s not an involving story because we’re not called to care about what’s going on, only to observe it.
The protagonist is a successful Manhattan trial lawyer, Tim Farnsworth, suffering from a bizarre condition of involuntary walking. His feet mechanically march him through city streets, across bridges, along highways and through good and bad neighborhoods without letting him stop. Twice this condition kidnaps Tim in the middle of his life and twice he goes into remission. Each time he successfully hides the weirdness from his fellow law partners by taking time off with fake excuses about his wife’s health. When the novel opens, the condition has returned a third time. The reality hits hard. With the medical community stumped and no treatment or cure available, Tim and his wife know their lives will forever be held hostage.
While this is a dramatically tragic plotline, Ferris keeps us above compassion by writing to the situation’s insanity. For example, Tim carries a survival back pack wherever he goes at the office because he could start walking at any moment. Also, as a test procedure — their last hope, actually — a doctor prescribes the daily wear of a helmet wired to capture brain activity. And Tim’s every walk ends with a tidal wave of exhaustion dropping him into a deep sleep in odd locations. One time it’s in the cab of a potato chip truck.
No longer wanting to burden his family, Tim eventually surrenders to the condition and takes off across the United States, willingly walking himself into physical and mental ruin. His endless motion becomes as relentless in the reading as the walking itself, but Ferris nevertheless keeps us traveling with his protagonist by fueling us with fresh prose. In the end, Tim learns his wife is battling cancer, and he walks home from the West Coast to be with her. Of any emotion in this unique and very sad story, it is their spousal romance that creates spark and purpose amidst all that doesn’t make sense.