Portrait of a Marriage – II

March 12, 2010 | No Comments

Joshua Ferris remarks in an interview with the Huffington Post that he’s disappointed by some of the critical response to his latest novel, The Unnamed, feeling that some readers fail to allow it to unfold on its own terms, while others are annoyed that he hasn’t written a similar book to his first best-selling outing, Then We Came to the End (2007).

Tim Farnsworth, The Unnamed‘s protagonist, is a successful New York lawyer with a loving wife and daughter, who suffers from a disease that causes him to, periodically and without warning, begin to walk and to walk to exhaustion and beyond. The devastation this condition wreaks on his life, on his family, is enormous and tragic.
Ron Charles of the Washington Post found the novel’s bleakness a merciless follow-up to the tart, funny Then We Came to the End. The book’s refusal to adhere to reader expectations of story structure – is it a medical thriller? A murder mystery? – also frustrated him. Meanwhile over at the New York Times, Jay McInnery remarks that Ferris must have no intention of creating an authorial “brand”, given that his second novel is so different from his first. He seems to imply, oddly, that having a “brand” would be desirable to a literary writer. McInnery also wonders if the main character’s compulsion is simply another metaphor for addition, thereby granting the physical aspect of the disease greater import in his review than the metaphysical, whereas I had thought that it was the nature of the human condition that Ferris was attempting to explore.
Personally, I found The Unnamed a compulsive read. It’s not chirpy, it’s true, but it’s un-put-downable, and I chewed my thoughts over for some time before posting this, my own review.
First, I believe a novelist is under no obligation to their readers to produce a new book exactly like the ones they’ve written before. Writers, unless they are working in popular genres, are not bakers, whose fresh bread is expected to taste the same day after day. I also found the obsessive attempts to diagnose Farnsworth’s illness besides the point, as though the illness itself was what mattered, rather than its consequences. To me (and Ferris may find my reading “impoverished” too), The Unnamed is an exploration of marriage (or even more broadly, of community), of how hard it is to consistently and deeply love and value someone, day after day, year after year, and how natural it is for all of us, at some time or other, to long to flee our own lives. Farnsworth’s condition seems to rise up every time he slips into complacency. “He had promised himself not to take anything for granted and now he couldn’t recall when that promise had given way to the everyday,” he thinks, when that terrible urge to walk comes upon him. Some years later, sitting in a cafe, he becomes hyper-aware of people around him as though for the first time, and thinks, “had he never listened“?
The Unnamed of the title refers to every thing, every event, every tiny daily miracle that happens in our lives unremarked, it is all that we fail to take notice of – we are so driven, so self-absorbed. We fail to pay attention, we fail to tell others what we are seeing, even though it is only through the telling that we see and understand (as any poet knows). Farnsworth comes to this revelation late because his marriage is typical of most relationships; we travel through life in silent parallel rather than circling and returning to dialogue. Too often, after time, conversation, not sex, is the first thing that fades.
Yes, Ferris’s novel is flawed (most particularly in the clunky side-plots), but its flaws may be inevitable given the nature of the story being told – it’s inevitable for time to become fragmented when the protagonist loses his sense of time, it’s inevitable for the ending to be bleak when the only end to life’s relentless flow is that final, exquisite stillness. Such flaws don’t detract from it being one of the saddest and most moving pieces of fiction I’ve read for years. It made me want to revisit Whitman and Thoreau.