The Un-manned

My review of Joshua Ferris‘ second novel, The Unnamed, is in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The opening:

Joshua Ferris’ “The Unnamed” is a hero’s journey tale with the heroism scoured clean off it. Its protagonist, Tim Farnsworth, suffers from an affliction in which he walks involuntarily for miles on end, and his constant motion wreaks havoc on his body and, in a way, conventional storytelling. Instead of adventure there is only movement. Instead of revelation there’s only unknowing.

This strategy isn’t automatically a bad thing, but Ferris bungles it; The Unnamed continuously hints that it might have a coherent point about marriage, or illness, or modern life, but the author moves on as soon as something begins to come together. “Must be a metaphor—otherwise just a cheap device,” I scribbled in the margin of one of the opening pages following another one of Farnsworth’s involuntary walks.

It’s ultimately worse than that—the walking is so persistent and so divorced from meaning that if it’s a device, it’s just a device to fill pages. As I mention in the review, Ferris does have a thing or two to say about what it means to fulfill the cultural definition of “manliness,” and how much shaming can be involved when a man doesn’t. His exhausted wife, Jane, thinks “he was a baby and not her husband”; his sullen daughter, Becka, describes life with him as “more or less like she was babysitting him”; and his (exclusively) alpha-male coworkers at a high-powered law firm engage in games of one-upmanship designed to humiliate whoever fails to step up. Tim, feeling punished for his affliction, has a nightmare about having his pants pulled down by a coworker in court, and in one of the novel’s more brutal scenes he’s mocked over the phone by two coworkers determined to stifle his role at the firm. They do childishly, hinting that Tim has recovered his previous reputation and then yanking their kindness away:

“And where did you get the genius—”

Tim thought he heard the start of a guffaw just as Masserly’s voice cut out. His end had gone mute again. Or so it seemed. Sometimes lawyers made phone calls with one finger poised over mute so they could bad-mouth the opposition.

“Did you just hit mute again? Is someone in the office with you?”

“Mute? Look, I was asking where you got the insight to write a motion for summary judgment in Keibler when there’s Horvath. It’s genius. But you know Horvath chapter and verse the way you make implicit the differ—”

There might have been another guffaw, but the line went dead.

And yet, like so much of the novel, the power of the scene is sapped by a lack of clarity and consistency. Ferris never makes clear whether Tim’s idea about a summary judgment is or isn’t worth mocking. (Either way, that scene would’ve been more effective.) And soon enough, Ferris is on to something else that he never quite works through—a murder-mystery subplot, some business about bees that probably should’ve been cut in the final edits, a schizophrenia that afflicts Tim in the closing chapters.

The humiliated man isn’t a character who gets a lot of traction in fiction. There are plenty of wusses, sure, but not as many guys who work through the shame of failing to measure up, the way that the sadly declining George Hurstwood did in Theodore Dreiser‘s Sister Carrie. It’s not so much that I hoped Ferris would write a humiliated-man novel that it seemed like the most promising of the weak options he introduced.

In the February issue of Harper’s, Wyatt Mason argues [sub req’d] that The Unnamed is largely a failure at the sentence level, that its impact is blunted by language that’s at once showy and imprecise. There’s some of that—“Overcast was riveted to the sky as gray to a battleship” may be the most forced line I’ve read in a novel recently. But the novel’s problems are more structural than rhetorical. The isolation that Tim both suffers and chooses speaks little to the work and family issues that Ferris introduces, and eventually they’re simply abandoned. Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman, in his admiring review of the novel, writes that “Ferris is interested in the blast radius around the sickness.” If only. The sickness, by novel’s end, is limited exclusively to the guy doing the walking. An implosion doesn’t have a blast radius.

5 thoughts on “The Un-manned

  1. I really enjoyed your review. The premise of the novel sounds really interesting, but it sounds like it didn’t live up to its promise.

  2. This is very disappointing. I probably still read the book, but Joshua Ferris is an author I’ve long had mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I really enjoyed Then We Came to the End, and I liked his most recent New Yorker story (plus he read George Saunders’ “Adams” to really nice effect on the New Yorker author’s reading authors podcast).

    But then something about “The Dinner Party” also from the New Yorker struck me as really irritating, perhaps the same kind of failed execution that you attribute to “The Unnamed.” I dunno but thanks Mark for the heads up, I’ll let you know how much if at all I disagree.

  3. “a cheap device” YEP.
    There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Cheap Device, but Joshua Ferris seems particularly infatuated in cheap devices to the detriment of more elemental structural concerns.
    Furthermore, his cheap devices are literary fetishes , he keeps coming back and plugging away at the device “just cause it’s so great” until that device consumes the heart of the work.and loses any power that the “cheapness” or “gimmickiness” of that device bestowed upon the work.

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