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: 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.

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Comments (3)

Kristi, so true.

I finally finished. I often wonder why people do things they do not necessarily want to do. Although this work did not provide an explicit reason, it did introduce the concept of questioning that which we do not really want to do. If that makes sense.

Great work! Love Ferris!

Posted by: Tiffany | Thursday February 18, 2010 at 8:03 AM

I finished The Unnamed last night and admit I had a hard time with it. I was totally with it in the beginning, but found it increasingly abstract by the final third--it seemed like I could see Ferris working too hard to make what had been a very personal story into something mythic or allegorical, and I began to feel distant from it, yet kind of smothered and depressed at the same time. Actually, maybe that was the point as Farnsworth's body and psyche broke down--but whether it was intentional or not, I was really glad to (no pun intended) come to the end. He is a hell of a writer, though, and I'm *very* interested to see what comes next.

Tiffany, the comment about your top billing partner gave me a laugh. I hope it's true! ;-)


Posted by: KristiC | Wednesday January 27, 2010 at 8:25 PM

I am currently in the middle of The Unnamed, and I love it! I loved Then We Came to the End. I appreciate that Ferris is trying something different. For a reader, it's very exciting to love two diverging works by the same author. Further, I work in a law firm and our top billing partner walks around with a backpack. Makes you wonder....

Posted by: Tiffany | Wednesday January 27, 2010 at 2:07 PM

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