Omni Daily Crush: "The Unnamed" (and Omnivoracious Podcast with Joshua Ferris)
Not everybody likes The Unnamed. As regular Old Media Monday readers may have noticed, there have been raves (it's an "accomplished and daring work," or "This is fiction with the force of an avalanche") but also a number of reviews of the "boy, kudos for trying something new after your first book was so awesome, but it didn't quite work" (e.g. Jay McInerney, Janet Maslin, and, most eloquently and extensively, Wyatt Mason in the subscription-only Harper's). You may have also noticed that it's our Spotlight Book of the Month pick for January: Brad and I both loved it, and Brad also posted what I think for us was a first: an author-to-author podcast, with David Sedaris interviewing Josh Ferris about the book. I'm not exactly sure how it came about, but I think it was pretty much that Sedaris read the book before it came out and loved it and wanted to do his first interview. And it's already inspired many thoughtful customer reviews on both sides.
So it's turning out to be a love-it-or-hate-it (or, rather, a love-it-or-be-disappointed-by-it) book, and I wanted to say a bit about why I love it. I read it more than half a year ago (in preparation for the interview I've posted below), and have gone back to it here and there since. I'd love to have the luxury to reread it fully with these recent critiques in mind, but I don't expect they would change the way I feel about the book. I feel a little like Jane, the wife in the book, when Tim, her husband, the high-powered lawyer beset by a strange walking compulsion, phones in from the road. "You were assaulted behind the supermarket by Janet Maslin? Oh banana, come home. We'll take care of you." I bought the premise completely, both Tim's illness and their marriage, and when I hear something about the book, or page back through it, I'm brought back to the feeling of melancholy that the story increasingly evoked. Beginning with the drama and curiosity (and even the humor) of the initial return of his illness, and the rather inevitable hopefulness that modern readers, used to medical miracles, bring to such stories, the novel shifts halfway through into an episodic, impressionistic, isolated wander. That's the part where some readers get off the bus; I felt disoriented and exhausted in those sections too, but it only deepened the effect of Tim's (and even more so, his family's) predicament for me, and for me the novel is one of the most moving evocations of what it really means to love and to be loyal.
Clearly, your mileage may vary, but I'd love to hear what anyone else thinks who has had a chance to read it yet. But in the meantime, here's my interview with Josh Ferris, from the floor of BookExpo America all the way back in May. For all the discussion of how different this book is from Then We Came to the End, not much has been said about what they share: an interest in the often-neglected literary subject of work: what it means to us when we have it, and what it means when we don't. That's where we started:
Amazon.com: Tell us where we begin in The Unnamed.
Joshua Ferris: Well, it's a departure from Then We Came to the End, in terms of tone and subject matter. It's about a man named Tim, who is married to his wife, Jane. He is suffering from a mysterious illness. An illness that is mysterious because I created it, so it doesn't really exist. He is compelled to walk, without really being able to control those bouts of walking. He's made to walk, and walk, and walk, until his body sort of releases him and he's completely exhausted and falls asleep wherever he finds himself, and then wakes up and has to get home, and his wife is more or less responsible for getting him home.
So, it's really the story of a man who is trying to hold together his marriage, his professional life, his family, and his own identity by battling a disease that he can't really identify and no one else can identify.
Amazon.com: I'm sure that anybody who comes to this book is going to be reading it in the context of your last book. One thing I thought of it was that--your first book was very much about work. This one seems to be about the end of what you do when the work isn't there, because he's a high-powered lawyer, and one of the things he has to deal with is ... not being a high-powered lawyer.
Ferris: I think that's exactly right. In a way this is what happens when someone like the Lynn Mason character in Then We Came to the End, who's dedicated her entire life to working, and makes work a significant part of her self-identity, is really forced by forces out of her control to stop working. Tim, a great deal of his self-identity is built upon the high-powered lawyering that he does for a Manhattan firm, and it's taken away from him by a physical illness. The question of "How you spend your time?", and what you devote yourself to, is thrown completely into flux when you're not allowed to spend it at work, especially if work itself is a large part of your identity, and the notion of "who you are" is tied up with work.
So, the existential dread that accompanies that reframing of who you are is severe. It would be severe for me if I were told, I can't write or do something that I truly love and absorbs a lot of my time. So I think that's certainly a big part of what this book is about.
Amazon.com: Yeah, you've written about work. You did a piece for The Guardian I think when the last book came out, about work and literature and how it's pretty neglected as a subject. You did a great piece on Florida for the State by State anthology, one of my favorite pieces. That was about your early work life, when you were like 11 or 12? I was not working when I was 11 or 12. What sent you out into the work force?
Ferris: Dirty, filthy lucre, man! It was all about money. When I was 10 years old, I wanted a waterbed, and my parents wouldn't let me have a waterbed. They couldn't afford to spend money on a waterbed, so I knew that the way I could get a waterbed was by going out and mowing lawns.
I think one of the things about work for me--yeah, it was about money, and now, it's a matter of survival and taking care of my family--but I think that something funny happens when you're working and you really love what you're doing, and that is you sort of lose awareness of everything around you. You lose awareness of even your physical body, and your gripes and your complaints. You're just absorbed into the moment. And the moment is never so pure, the present is never so easily flowing, as when you're really working hard, and I love that state. I think it's a Western man's cheap transcendence. It's a very easy way to achieve a kind of Zen-like calm amidst a lot of distractions.
Amazon.com: It's purposeful. It makes me think of a domesticated animal. You hear about the proper way to have a dog or a horse is to give them the work that they are made to do, and I think people are kind of the same way. But work generally has a pretty negative--"Oh, I have to go to work." People don't think of it in that sense. I think it's only when you have good work to do that you think of it that way.
Ferris: Yeah, I think of that as the paradox of my stepfather's love of the song by Johnny Paycheck called, "Take This Job and Shove It." He loves his job, and yet he sang along to that song quite often. So I think there is definitely a love/hate relationship that one has with one's work. For me it's when I'm not writing well or something isn't coming together, and the frustration couldn't be higher. But it's such an integral part of who we are. It's a part that seems to be that part of us which we are paying fealty to, somehow, that we sort of owe it to society or have to do it out of obligations. But I think in fact most of us, if we're fortunate enough and circumstances are right, enjoy what we do and find great meaning in it.
There's also another aspect to it that I think, that I at least hope, Then We Came to the End captured, which is that work is our social nexus to a great extent as well, especially as in this late era when communities like church and other traditional structures that introduce us to other people have become less forceful in our lives. Work introduces you automatically to a random lottery of people, who eventually you find your way to discovering as very good friends, and so forth, and some significant meaning is brought about by finding yourself employed. I think that community, the community that work allows us. It can't be understated, it's pretty important stuff.
Amazon.com: So you've chosen for yourself a very isolated job, as you talk about community. I was curious how you've come to writing as a career, as work, whether it was easy to declare yourself as a writer, since that's a very self-chosen profession? And how it is doing a job that is isolated, when most work offers that kind of community?
Ferris: Well, it's very easy and it's very hard. I mean, I consider it a great fortune to be able to do nothing but write, and I'm, most days, happier to be at the desk than anywhere else. It's the place where I'm most at home for sure. The occupational hazards are that there is no one to really cut the dread of a day by hanging out with or going to lunch with. I'm pretty much on my own there. I have cats, but they're just as cool. They have work to do, too. There are couches and other surfaces beckoning. So I think that it is a lonely pursuit but it's never a lonesome one.
Amazon.com: You have the blessing that your first big book did sell well. Before you were tapped by society as a "Writer," did you find it hard to justify yourself as a writer or did you feel the calling strong enough that you knew that was your work?
Ferris: I think that there are two things that your question automatically brings to mind, which is that when you're alone, when I was alone, doing the work, I was a writer. When I was out in the world and unpublished and no one knew whether or not what I was doing when I was alone was worth a damn, I was unemployed. Those are two significantly different things, but they can mutually exist.
So I suppose it takes, before you get published or before you're making money, or even before you're really dedicated to the task, it takes some chutzpah to say I'm a writer, but if you're actually doing the work, I think there's nothing more legitimate than to say you're a writer. It also doesn't, though, ameliorate the fact that you're also unemployed. It was hard to say it publicly, but I always knew it privately.
Amazon.com: Let's get back to The Unnamed. You said when you first introduced it that the style has changed from the last book. What were you after when you moved into The Unnamed?
Ferris: Well, Then We Came to the End has a large cast of characters. The Unnamed focuses almost exclusively on one man and one relationship, the relationship that he has with his family. Then We Came to the End was told from a strange perspective, the group, the "we." This is told from a much more traditional perspective. Then We Came to the End was a more comedic novel, this is a much more serious novel.
I like to think of Then We Came to the End as a comedic novel with an undercurrent of seriousness. This I think is a very serious novel with an undercurrent of humor. At the root, at the heart of it, it is a love story between Tim and his wife Jane, who struggle mightily with this mysterious affliction that no doctor can diagnose and no specialist can cure. And they struggle not only with it but because the sickness is compulsive walking, he is driven away, literally, from the people he loves and from his life. He can't work because he is out there walking.
So he has to struggle with some very essential questions like "What kind of effort do I need to make to remain with my wife and with my daughter?" And those questions don't automatically lend themselves to a great amount of humor. So that's why the tonal shift. But I think that the story dictates the tone in which the novel is written, and The Unnamed is certainly more preoccupied with family and ideas of commitment and dedication and sacrifice, things that were probably less at the forefront in my first novel. And those questions are asked and answered with various degrees of success.
Amazon.com: Did you begin with the disease, or with these two people that you were trying to figure out how they might be divided, or with his voice? What brought you into the story?
Ferris: I began with the disease, because I wanted to discuss, I wanted to try to capture the essentials of illness. Everyone is familiar with it because everyone's had a cold. Some people are more familiar with it because they've suffered from cancer or life-threatening diseases or diseases that are terminal. But I wanted to strip away any association with illness that comes with cancer, or heart attack, or whatever it may be, and talk fundamentally about what illness is, and what it does to a family. And what it does in particular to a man who knows himself only through very limited things: his family, his job, and the identity that he's constructed for himself.
When the illness imposes upon him an identity and a meaning that is foreign to him--not only foreign to him but hostile to him--he has to reconstitute entirely his world view, the way in which he is going to approach the world. How does he deal with his wife? How does he deal with his daughter? What happens to his professional life? Who is he as a man? All these larger questions become very focused when the disease takes him away. And I thought it was most important to do that with a disease that was invented and a disease that had the added bonus of literally driving him away from these things that required his presence in order to keep up, maintain.
So it's a book that asks where meaning comes from when your life is inadvertently and without your control remade by something that is unexplainable, and in Tim's case, unnamed.
Amazon.com: That mysteriousness of the disease just heightens the effect that any disease has. There is that line between the person who feels it within his body and then has to somehow communicate that often against mistrust when it doesn't fit a standard diagnosis.
Ferris: I think that's exactly right. One of the most frustrating things that you have when you're sick is you simply can't communicate accurately the agony that you're feeling. Even if it's a cold. I know from reports from my loved ones that I'm a real child when it comes to getting the common cold. But they don't understand that I feel like I'm on death's door. The disparity between the phrase "common cold" and "death's door" is so great, and yet I feel closer to death's door than I do common cold when I'm laid down and have a fever and so forth.
When you suffer from a disease that gets much more serious than a common cold, trying to communicate it to anyone is half the battle and probably the lion's share of frustration. For someone that is genuinely suffering to try and say, "Here is what I am suffering from," and to communicate it to a fellow sufferer and to see the flash of recognition that passes across their eyes is to feel less lonely in the world.
In Tim's case, because he is the only one suffering from this disease, he's excluded even from that kind of relief, and so it is even more frustrating. The question then arises to what extent does his wife and his daughter take him at face value, and what kind of work, what kind of empathetic work do they do, to reach an understanding of what he must be going through as a man in his own skin? And I think it's that challenge that they face as his wife and daughter to get closer to him, as he is physically trying to get back to them because he has walked so far away from them.