Whatever the proximate cause, we all will die in the end, probably with pain, possibly with some alteration of self before it is over. This is no revelation. Yet depictions of the body in an off-kilter condition have been a mainstay recently, not just of the hospital dramas that dominate TV but of much fiction. The fascination is in tune with a culture that knows exponentially more about the workings of the body than has any in history but that remains, even with the technical know-how, unable to meet many challenges to it. We know so much that, it seems, we are surprised there could be still be mystery and distressed we still need to grieve.
With its focus on an out-of-control human body and on how the mind makes sense of suffering, Joshua Ferris's new novel, The Unnamed, feels different from his genial-on-the-surface debut, Then We Came to the End. Yet death stalked the advertising-firm cubicles of that novel, too. If its comic take on the groupthink of anxious workplaces lent itself to comparison to The Office, there was also the weightier story of the firm's stylish boss facing cancer. There was the narration throughout by a first-person-plural "we," evoking the complacency required to make long workdays chained to an ergonomic chair bearable; and there was the title's existential link between storytelling, economic boom times, and life itself—each abruptly, absurdly, bound to expire.
Ferris's new protagonist is no longer a "we." But he does feel like a representative American type—a success story, about to be laid low. His name is Tim Farnsworth, and he is Harvard-trained and middle-aged, an appreciator of fine wine and a litigator skilled enough to have made partner. When we first meet him, he is living in a big house in the suburbs with his wife, Jane, still pretty in her artsy eyeglasses. Their life seems like a high-end aspirational ad; at one point, the narrator calls the good times a "corporate pastoral." But just as Ferris's first novel arrived in 2007 with a timely mood of incipient economic panic, this one takes us through a great deaccessioning.
In fact, we learn in passing (since Ferris doesn't make much use of his characters' pasts) that Tim's father died tragically young, while his mother was killed in a freak accident. More key to the present dilemma, Tim and Jane's union has already been marked by trauma. Twice in the years before the novel begins, in a period lasting each time for months, Tim did battle with a terrifying illness; really, Tim and Jane both rushed into battle, since it dramatically disrupted both their lives. They never learned the cause of his syndrome or found a medical name for it. After a while, the condition seemed to recede, and the couple came to hope they'd outlasted it—until the novel's start, when it rises up again like a bogeyman.
Tim's problem is an irrepressible urge to walk. This may not sound so bad, but it occupies an odd middle ground between neurotic compulsion and biblical punishment; once the need hits, it's stronger than his will to keep safe or to observe any social norm that might interrupt the walking. He disappears from home with no time of return and no predictable endpoint. This creates endless dread in his wife and costs her hours each night scouring the streets for him. When he's really seized by the impulse, she has to handcuff him to the bed.
For maximum danger, Ferris has the urge reappear during a bout of freezing New York winter, so that when Tim goes out strolling he could collapse in someone's yard and get frostbite. The novelist takes us straight to the cold in his opening line, touched by presumably winking cliché: "It was the cruelest winter" is followed by a description of schools shut down, deliveries halted, and burial grounds themselves buried in snow. The passage is reminiscent of the "we" from Then We Came to the End. It is "life in general," life lived by the plurality, not without a certain sad dignity but available for teasing.
But anyway, with his crazy legs, Tim may already be exiting the group. The first half of the novel focuses on the marital strain. Jane feels a reactivated fear for her husband but also resentment and guilt. Tim tries to maintain his status at work, but he starts dropping the ball on the must-win case of a high-powered client accused of murder. This is a good example of Ferris's tendency to pursue not just ambiguity but dueling, almost supernaturally charged ambiguities: We are led to feel that the law firm's mandate to get the client off is self-interested and maybe corrupt, but that the unlikable guy may be innocent. The couple also have a teenage daughter, Becka, and if it seems like an afterthought to mention her only now, in the story her parents love her but have put all their vigilance into keeping Tim alive. Shaped in an emotional vacuum, Becka is growing up rebellious and apparently quite fat, but with a reservoir of sensitive strength.
And what is Tim's illness, exactly? Ferris describes the onset in semicomic, pictorial strokes with a pinch of the grotesque. Here Tim remembers the early days of his perambulation, discovering which aspects of movement he does and does not control:
He could move his head, his limbs—hell, he could dance so long as he kept moving forward. Like a stutterer in song. He juked and huffed around casual city walkers until he was in New Jersey and his lungs hit a wall and he stopped. But his legs, he realized at once, had every intention of continuing, and continue they would until they were through.
Tim's condition may be the occasion for this novel, but you can see this is not one of those medicalized, forensic extravaganzas, thick with technical terms. If anything, Ferris treats the ungraspable syndrome casually, as a proposition to be observed in its playing out. Quickly and after the fact, the omniscient narration describes various failed attempts by Tim and Jane to consult doctors, psychiatrists, an expert in Switzerland, a giver of colonics, a bodhisattva; they run useless MRIs and propose theories from diet to stress to the problem of the technology-alienated self. Only one doctor seems to know how to explore the disease. But the experiment sputters, and what Tim wants most of all—an understanding of what's wrong—the doctor can't supply.
Eventually, Tim decides to take paradoxical responsibility for his illness, sparing his family by departing for the out-there life of a scarred wanderer. He walks, pursuing the barest-boned survival, and occasionally he struggles to sort out his beliefs—in God, in no-God-at-all, in the question of which holds dominion, soul or body. The America he sees, meanwhile, is one of roving wild pigs in depressing suburbs, the occasional terrifying flood, lovely nature, and every so often a cluster of franchise stores like Verizon, Mail Boxes, Etc., and Men's Wearhouse—markers of the real American priorities, like churches once were in Old Europe. At this point, if we want to avoid our own sometimes distracting questions about the anatomical mechanics of walking so far minus a couple toes sacrificed to frostbite, we must accept that the story is intended as a thought-provoking parable.
Though his idea might have worked equally well as a short story, Ferris paces his scenes and writes dialogue that sustains the tension, walking a line between realism and something more estranged, catching the invisible shifting energy in the room when words get spoken. Soon after his condition reappears, Tim goes to his daughter's bedroom to talk frankly. He apologizes for having ignored her in the past and bluntly recaps his response to her phase of, to him, tedious teenage acting out. "The last couple of years," he says, "I haven't really wanted to be around you." While Becka sits tucked into her bed, Ferris points us to Tim's movement causing a twist in the sheets, as if to offer evidence that he is in fact there. "They were never still anymore in each other's presence. There was always some context for movement, some unspoken vectoring away." At their best, Ferris descriptions read like ghost stage directions for how actors might play the scene.
The several references to Ralph Waldo Emerson in Then We Came to the End made clear Ferris's fascination with the Transcendentalist author, and this novel stirs up Emersonian arguments about stripping away illusory layers of reality, and the causes of despair and its antidote. In places, these themes arrive didactic in their earnest bleakness, as if the debate had been held before we got there. Is the mind-body relationship really one of war or capitulation? If that notion is an error, is there no situation short of the cruel and extreme to help us lift the veil? Fortunately, Ferris possesses an overriding writer's gift: a basic and consistent ability to entertain while spurring engagement. Even when his ideas don't land squarely, the narrative energy he imparts and the concern with basic life questions feel, to use the terms of karma that lurk mysteriously in the background here, like good action in the world.
Sarah Kerr writes on culture and books for the New York Review of Books and other publications and lives near Washington, DC.