Bonnie Brody's Reviews > The Unnamed

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
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's review
Mar 03, 2012

it was ok
Read in October, 2009

Anyone who reads this book will never think of walking in the same way again. Tim Farnsworth is an attorney who is stricken with a disorder (?), disease (?), mental illness (?), neurological problem (?), psychiatric disorder (?) that remains 'unnamed'. He will be okay for long periods of time, sometimes years, and then be stricken with his 'problem' which is uncontrolled, unstoppable walking. He will walk until exhausted and then sleep wherever his walking takes him, even if it's on a park bench or behind a dumpster. The episodes can last for months and as the book begins, Tim is on his third episode after several years in remission. When I say that the walking is unstoppable, I mean that literally. At one point, a little girl walks into Tim and she is thrown off balance; he doesn't even stop to see how she is. This is completely uncharacteristic of him. If he'd been well, and not in the grips of the 'unnamed', he would have stopped to see how she was. He can't stop walking in order to eat and the smells of Manhattan food vendors drive him crazy. He can only stop for one thing - exhaustion - complete and utter exhaustion. You might think that Tim is like Forrest Gump but Forrest chose to run, he was not compelled.

When not ill, Tim is a functional attorney at a top-notch law office in Manhattan. He is a partner and has made so much money that he doesn't have to think about his spending at all. He and his wife, Jane, live in a home with eight bedrooms. As Jane says, she could sleep in a different bedroom every night of the week. Jane and Tim are still in love after twenty years of marriage even though Tim's disorder has taken a toll on their marriage. They have a daughter, Becka, who is a teenager when the book opens up.

Tim has gone to specialists around the world for his unnamed disorder. He has seen psychiatrists, neurologists, homeopathic specialists, internists, nutritionists and endocrinologists. He has taken CAT scans, MRI's, x-rays, and whatever other tests the doctors can come up with to try and see what is causing his interminable walking. At one point he wears a bicycle helmet over his shaved head - the helmet has been fitted with a portable MRI-like scanner that will take pictures of his brain while he is walking. Jane has fitted him with a backpack that is filled with food and basic necessities so that he can take care of himself when the 'unnamed' hits him and he begins to walk.

When the book opens up, Tim has lost hope of finding a cure or getting a diagnosis. He had wanted a diagnosis badly and he was willing to go to the ends of the earth to get one. He had hoped that by putting a name to what was wrong with him, he could evoke sympathy and compassion from those around him rather than being thought of as a walking freak. Tim has even been the subject of an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. One of the main problems in finding a diagnosis is that he is the only one ever who has been stricken with this particular unnamed problem. The walking and the searching is exhausting for Tim.

Jane and Tim have come up with all types of extreme ways to handle Tim's walking and keep him safely at home. At one point, Tim has been strapped to the bed in handcuffs for weeks at a time, having to use a bed pan, never able to get up. He even develops bed sores. He has to be watched 24/7 and this takes a real toll on Jane. Becka does much better with watching Tim than her mother does. Together, they watch episode after episode of Buffy and the Vampire Slayer. When he does walk, he and Jane have an agreement. The first is that he take the backpack that Jane has prepared for him. The second thing is that he calls Jane when he's done walking for the day(s) and Jane will come and pick him up no matter where he is.

My problem with the book is that it is repetitive and there is not good character development. We are told what is going on with the characters at various times but I felt like I was being educated about them rather than having them open up to me as real people in the evolution of the book. The book's plot is like that too. It meanders back and forth and we are told what is happening in order to be able to follow the narrative. I prefer books that are more organic, that flow easily with rich character development. This book does not have that.

The seasons come and go as the novel progresses. We are with Tim and his family through the years. Tim deals with profound issues of life and death, mind and body, wellness and illness. This aspect of the novel is very well done. The novel is also an homage to Tim and Jane's love over the years. I appreciated the depth of feeling that was conveyed here. However, there are several things that just didn't make sense or have follow- through. One was the reason for Tim's taking so much medication towards the end of the book. Why? He is floridly psychotic but what is the reason for this change? Walking is the illness, not psychosis. As Tim searches for a rational explanation for what is unnamed, he appears to get more and more psychotic. Why? The author peppers the book with attempts at magical realism - bees pounding against Tim's window and strewn over the street like leaves, blackbirds falling from the sky, fires out of control - but it feels awkward and unnecessary. It is just 'out there' and does not fit with the constrained style of writing and overall thematic issues.

I find it difficult to recommend this book. The writing style feels constrained and didactic. The plot themes are repetitive and often there is no follow-through with characters who come and go. I am left to ask the question 'Why?' too many times to feel comfortable in my reading. I appreciate the author's attempt to portray a tortured individual and his family but, ultimately, I ended up not being able to empathize with the characters as portrayed. I was educated as to who they are and how they act but it just didn't feel natural. I guess that's the major issue I have with the book. It seemed to try too hard to pull me in and what happened, paradoxically, is that I felt outside looking in. With a great book, I'm on the inside with the characters and environment. Their sensibility is mine. This just didn't happen with this novel.

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