Walk hard

Joshua Ferris abandons the office and hits The Road
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  January 13, 2010

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BREAKING OUT Joshua Ferris.

We walk to get from point A to point B, or for exercise, or to embrace one or another sort of weather, or to take in the scenery, or to disappear from the grid and tackle a problem or rejuvenate ourselves.

In Joshua Ferris's unsparing second novel, Tim Farnsworth doesn't know why he walks, but nothing but exhaustion can stop him. 

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THE UNNAMED | by Joshua Ferris | Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown | 310 pages | $24.99

Ferris's debut, 2007's Then We Came to End, employed a peculiar narrative conceit (the first-person plural voice) to reveal the mundane tragicomedy of life in an office. His follow-up, The Unnamed, cripples its protagonist with a recurring disease of unknown origins. It ends up exposing the ambiguous bonds of marriage, family, and selfhood.

The book begins in what can be considered the near future. Extreme weather, seasonal and drastic (there are brush fires in the Northeast), pervades. Farnsworth, a handsome partner at a New York City law firm, lives in the suburbs with an intelligent, beautiful wife and a sullen teenage daughter. All are shaken out of complacence in the opening pages, as Tim realizes his mysterious ailment has returned after an eight-year dormancy. He arrives home, frostbitten after falling asleep on a park bench without a coat, and tells his wife, "It's back."

Ferris spends the first half of the book exploring this existential-horror-in-suburbia premise. Tim has worked long hours at the expense of his marriage and his relationship with his daughter to achieve a strong degree of professional and psychological happiness. The recurrence of his ailment — left undiagnosed by medical, psychiatric, and holistic professionals — threatens his position at the law firm, as sudden absences and exits accumulate (he tells his co-workers his wife has cancer) and his physical appearance changes drastically. He grows thin, and the cold weather takes a toll on his limbs.

At home, his wife tries to accommodate his compulsion to walk farther and farther away by equipping him with a survivalist's backpack and a GPS system to track his whereabouts. When that fails, she sacrifices her independence (by quitting her job) and restrains his (by handcuffing him to the bedposts). Every action the couple takes to keep them united leaves them both more desperate and distraught. Tim ponders suicide, and his wife takes to the bottle.

For a while, it seems that the Farnsworths live on Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road — where suburbia itself is the mysterious, crippling disease — but The Unnamed unexpectedly takes its central dilemma in a direction more akin to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The sense of dread Ferris establishes in the early pages is sustained through his elusive verbal economy ("He hadn't called to tell them. He had lost his phone. They were waiting for him, but they didn't know it.") and a few sudden ruptures in chronology. Then, the plot veers toward extreme natural, psychological, and spiritual occurrences straight out of a Biblical parable.

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