Wednesday, March 24, 2010
When Carolyn in our book group suggested years ago that we read Blindness, it seemed an unlikely premise: an entire country is stricken with blindness. But in the hands of a master like Jose Saramago, it worked. So it is, too, in The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris: an unlikely premise. At unpredictable times, the main character Tim Farnsworth is overcome by an irresistible urge to walk... and to walk til exhaustion. Whether he is in the midst of preparing a client to testify in his (the client's) own defense at a murder trial or in bed with his wife, when the urge strikes there is no stopping or delaying.
As you can imagine this can play havoc with a career, a marriage, a family (Farnsworth has a teen-age daughter at the time of the story.) As bad as it is, it actually draws father and daughter closer together. When you marry "for better or worse", you never think of the "worse" part. Certainly Jane never thought it would mean this: driving in the middle of the night to unknown towns searching for Tim when he left without his backpack with the GPS; chaining him to his bed to try to overcome the compulsion because medical science comes up empty-handed in the hunt for a diagnosis.
The reaction of the critics to this novel seems to divide along a line of whether the critic had read Ferris' previous novel Then We Came to the End with those who were familiar with the previous work less favorable to this one. Is that fair to an author: to judge him or her with reference to another of his or her own works?
I'm not sure that I actually bought into the walking compulsion but you can certainly substitute other compulsive behaviors with the same results. The subplot about the murder trial of Tim's client seemed contrived. But Tim's determination to defeat the demons in his body, be they physical or psychological, is awesome in the fullest sense of that word. He refuses to yield... a good lesson for all of us.
After you have read the book, here is the text of an interview with Jonathan Ferris that may shed some light on what he is trying to do.