It's back. With those words Tim and Jane Farnsworth reenter a nightmare they know so intimately it needs no other description. "It" may not be found among an insurance company's diagnostic codes, but the Farnsworths, a couple made wealthy by Tim's single-mindedly successful legal practice, know it too well: Tim's compulsion, at any random moment of the day or night, to set out walking for hours at a time until he collapses in exhaustion.
And so begins my colleague Tom Nissley's review for The Unnamed, Joshua Ferris's brilliant second novel, following his equally brilliant, award-winning breakout debut, Then We Came to the End. The book is our spotlight pick for the Best Books of January and Tom and I, who both read--and loved--the book over the summer, nearly had to endure a best-of-three bout of arm-wrestling over who would get to pen the actual review. Tom won. (Note to self: Never challenge Tom to arm wrestling. He will win.)
With feats of strength behind us, I'm even more excited to learn that David Sedaris loved The Unnamed just as much as we did. So much so, that he conducted his very first interview (this time as the one asking the questions) with Joshua Ferris. Read on or listen to our exclusive podacst below to hear the two talk about the charm of ugly characters, mocha frappuccinos, literary truisms, and much more.
David Sedaris: I'm David Sedaris and I'm talking to Josh Ferris about his new novel, The Unnamed.
Joshua Ferris: Hi David.
Sedaris: Hi Josh. To start, I absolutely loved your book. And I read it two times and it was so completely different than your last book and so completely different than the short story that ran in the New Yorker a few weeks after I read it the first time. I so admire somebody that can switch back and forth like that.
Ferris: Well thank you, I appreciate that.
Sedaris: And I think you're so amazing at describing people. Would you read a little bit? Would you read on page 22 this description of Becka? I've got it marked right here if that makes it easier.
Ferris: OK. "Becka had eight or ten thick dreadlocked strands. They moved about her head the way miter curtains danced lazily over the car at an automatic car wash. Heavy and grayish. Their weight exposed the pale fault lines of her scalp. They cushioned her head as she lay back on the headboard. 'Do you think he fakes it, mom?' she asked. 'Fakes it?'"
Sedaris: I love that the daughter in your book is ugly. I mean, it's so much easier to love a pretty child. And I kind of like that she's--ugly's not the right word, but just maybe "unpretty." When you first meet her she's just sort of going through an unpleasant phase. She changes so much over the course of the novel and she becomes more understanding, and I like how with she and her dad Buffy brings them together. Just the image of him being tied down and spending time with his daughter. The book was very serious but there were images from the book that when I think of them I have to laugh. Like herding ostriches with a bullwhip.Which is mentioned in the book twice. It just sticks in my head. Tim's mother dying of blunt trauma to the head from a mirror in a restaurant. It's just a little detail--we're just learning how his parents died--but it's comic. But in the context of the book it's not comic.
Ferris: When you step out, when you step away from the book and recognize what it is I described there's an abusrdist angle that can be thought of in retrospect. But as you read it it seems as if this is as truthful as nonfiction. It's only upon memory where you think, who herds an ostrich with a bullwhip?
Ferris: It probably doesn't happen, I'm not sure. I don't really know where that detail came from. I might have made it up.
Sedaris: Towards the end of the book: "He entered a town of cattle murals and savings banks where he bought a mocha frappuccino." That's so wonderful to me--"of cattle murals and savings banks"--and you can see that exactly and then the mocha frappuccino.
Ferris: I think it would probably be pretty hard to find anything but a mountain that isn't tainted in some way by the modern commercial world. I mean, look off in the mountains and you see them and they're pure and pristine but if you're in a city which mountains are all around you're going to be able to access a mocha frappuccino pretty easily.
Sedaris: I like this toward the end: "The chain gas station with the logo of a dinosaur sold him a map which he studied out by the propane tank.Everywhere he stopped he filled a cup with ice to sooth his burning tongue. His heels ballooned and forced him to unlace his boots and to walk on his toes which led to higher orders of osteo complications in the charnel house of his body. Beauty, surprisingly, was everywhere. In the wild flowers, the wheat fields, the collapsed barns, the passing trains, the church spires, the stilled ponds, the rising suns." I like that you didn't leave that out. That when you see him moving through this landscape you think of the hell that has become his life. Every now and then, like when he sleeps with those cows. When he sleeps standing up, buffeted by those cows, it's sublime.
Ferris: It was important to remember. I mean, he does descend. He descends psychologically, emotionally, and physically and yet it was important that the beauty that is confronted, that is available, in the landscape if you're looking, not be forgotten about. Even despite this condition that's wearing him down. And I'm not sure if it's him that's noticing it so much as the narrator that's noticing it, but toward the end he's certainly reminded of it by Jane and is asked by Jane, basically, to take those details, to remember those details, and bring them home with him in order to bring the outside world in. I wanted to be sure that Tim was looked after to some extent. He's been looked after by his wife. He's been tended to by his family as well as possibly can be. I suppose the narrator, the writer, still had to do that to some extent. The ending was crucial. If I wanted it to end the way that it ends I had to make it compassionate.
Sedaris: I was going to ask, do you keep a list of truisms? Like when you were working on this book--like, Tim's truisms? "McDonald's is quick, tasty, and conveniently located." "Everyone loves TV." "Good shoes are not simply a luxury." "Funny looks from male strangers are unsettling." Do you keep a little list of things that are true like that?
Ferris: I suppose I do inside my brain but not necessarily down on page.
Sedaris: Do you, by chance, have a list of million-dollar ideas?
Ferris: They're more like thousand-dollar ideas.
Sedaris: Do you write them down in one place?
Ferris: I actually e-mail them to myself. You know, the iPhone. If I just have an idea it's a lot like a portable tablet. I'll compose an e-mail to myself, write it down, and then send it, then save it. I'll archive it and visit it later. But they're thousand-dollar e-mails.
Sedaris: I've never done this before. I've never interviewed anyone before. I typed up all these notes and I wish that I could start all over again and do the whole thing over. You don't want to throw stuff away, I guess, when you're interviewing somebody, but like I said, I've never done it before. But regardless of whatever mistakes I had my enthusiasm is genuine and I think this is an absolutely fantastic book.
Ferris: Well, it was a lot of fun talking with you. I think you did a great job. Thank you, David.