Poignant tale of illness and love
Here we have the first great novel of the new decade, and one of the best of this young century. This book will vault Ferris into the literary center ring with our best young writers—the Chris Adrians and Junot Díazes and Zadie Smiths and Marcus Zusaks of the earth.
Ferris offers us the heartbreaking tale of Tim Farnsworth, a high-rolling lawyer at a silk-stocking Manhattan firm. Tim contracts a bizarre illness that forces him, on the moment, to stop whatever he’s doing and strike out walking. It is a punishing illness, psychically and physically. He cannot make his body stop to rest. He cannot control the direction his body travels. He cannot predict where or when he’ll wake up, utterly exhausted, from the attacks—frostbitten in a snowbank, filthy in a dumpster, confounded in the back seat of a strange car.
His long-suffering wife Jane will eventually handcuff him to their bed (get ready for the unkinkiest bedroom scenes imaginable) to keep him safe at home. Their teenaged daughter can’t fully believe her father isn’t a head case; indeed, neither can the best MDs money can buy. Tim’s strange malady—the “Unnamed” of the title—gets him written up in the New England Journal of Medicine, but doctors can’t script him a cure or even a real diagnosis. There’s nothing like this illness in medical history—illness as terrorist, impossible to predict, impossible to stop.
Ferris writes most poignantly of the destruction the illness wreaks on Tim and Jane’s 20-year marriage. In sickness and in health? Any love risks being shaken to pieces as chronic illness takes hold—especially an illness that strikes with such weird lightning, fades into remission, then unexpectedly flashes again. What couple could stay together? What love could endure the test? What spirit could hold off despair?
Describing the tale of the Farnsworths sounds woeful and dire but, amazingly, the book is a page-turner. (I sat down to take a critical sniff. When I put the book down 100 pages later, I blinked in surprise—night had fallen as I’d read.) Especially gripping is a section in which Tim musters the will to partly take back his physical self from the other, the name he’s given to the compulsion that commandeers him. This struggle occurs during Tim’s brutally challenging journey home (yes, on foot) to his ill wife after the walking sickness has wandered him clear across the United States.
Ferris’s first novel, Then We Came To The End, earned the young New Yorker plenty of accolades. Nothing in that work prepared us, though, for his new novel’s quantum leap in voice, gravity, storytelling and emotion. The first work showed “promise”; that’s a play-it-safe term reviewers will employ (I’m guilty) when they fear some unchecked moment of enthusiasm for a new writer or work might later cause embarrassment.
Not this reviewer. Not this novel. Forget “promise.” Joshua Ferris has arrived running, not walking. The Unnamed will make his name.