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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Unnamed

I suspect that the temptation to “walk away from it all” is a common one that almost everyone thinks about, even if only for an instant, at one time or another. Few of us, however, succumb to the temptation because our good sense allows us to control the fleeting urge to chuck it all away for a fresh start. What would happen, though, if, like Tim Farnsworth, the urge to walk away had to be responded to literally – no other option allowed? How would we survive the elements and the dangers of the streets? What would happen to those we leave behind? Joshua Ferris explores those questions in The Unnamed.

Tim Farnsworth, a wealthy Harvard-educated attorney and partner at a prestigious New York City firm, lives with a monster: an unnamed disease that requires him to walk until he drops into a deep sleep from sheer exhaustion. The disease comes and goes, sometimes disappearing for years at a time, but when the urge to start walking strikes, Tim Farnsworth has no choice. He starts walking, and neither the obligations of his job nor those of his family can check his need to hit the streets.

Tim and his wife, by now, know what to expect when the disease returns. Tim is able to alert his wife to what his happening to him and she quickly outfits him in his warmest clothing and makes sure that he leaves the house (or office) with a backpack filled with things to help him survive on his own. Even all this planning does not always work, however, because Tim has a way of walking away from his possessions when coming out of one of his deep sleeps.

The Unnamed, despite the bleakness of its theme, is a terrific character study because it places the reader deep inside Tim Farnsworth’s head as he struggles to understand and control the disease that is slowly, but steadily, killing him. We share his frustration and despair when even the best doctors fail him; we worry with him about how his wife and daughter are holding up back home; we understand his anger at how his longtime legal colleagues take advantage of his illness; and, through his eyes, we see life stripped to its most fundamental elements.

This is a difficult novel to read because of its theme and storyline, and I have no quarrel with that. Ferris succeeds in making the reader feel Tim’s struggle not to surrender to the hopelessness of his situation as the unnamed disease more and more dominates his life. As a result, some readers might, after putting down the book, be a bit reluctant to return to it. This feeling, though, only illustrates how successful Ferris is in making the reader feel the Farnsworth family’s pain. On the other hand, I did struggle during the somewhat tedious section of the book during which Tim loses touch with reality to such an extent that he cannot distinguish the real world from his dream world. This overlong section of the book would have been more effective had it been presented concisely because, as it is written, I found myself rushing through it in order to get to the rest of the story.

The Unnamed is one of those books I will think about for a while – but not one that I am likely to want to read a second time. There is a lot to be gained from reading it once, however, and I recommend it to anyone ready to contemplate life at its most basic.

Rated at: 3.5
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