Perils of Perambulation
In Joshua Ferris's novel, the protagonist can't stop himself from walking
by Joshua Ferris
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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