two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
45-Mar-Apr-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-UnnamedJoshua Ferris’s bestselling first novel, Then We Came to the End (2007), won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award, and his short fiction has been published by The New Yorker and Granta. This is his second novel.

The Story: "It’s back," announces Tim Farnsworth sullenly to his wife Jane, referring to the mystifying illness—an uncontrollable urge to walk to the point of exhaustion—that has plagued him twice before. This latest affliction is by far the most serious, driving the outrageously successful New York City attorney to stop whatever he’s doing and trudge vast distances until he falls into a narcoleptic sleep. Doctors, unsure whether Tim’s condition is physical or psychological, are unable to help, and attempts to forcefully restrain him fail. As Jane struggles to care for her husband and their teenage daughter Becka, Tim finds himself in danger of losing everything he holds dear.
Reagan Arthur Books. 320 pages. $24.99. ISBN: 9780316034012

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"An odd thing happens halfway through The Unnamed. The plot shifts from familiar themes—marital discord, suburban anomie, legal intrigue—to the darker and more durable question of how those forsaken by fate endure. … With this brave and masterful novel, Ferris has proven himself a writer of the first order." Steve Almond

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ferris puts his notable wit and observational ability aside in favor of a far more psychological (and ultimately physical) examination of the self. … It’s precisely the emotional toll of Tim’s issue that reverberates throughout the novel, especially as it relates to Jane and Becka, and it also occasionally may lead to some weariness on the reader’s part as the story circles over the same basic territory several times." Tod Goldberg

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Ferris’s vivid recounting of Tim’s raging peregrinations is often riveting. … But sometimes The Unnamed lapses into the heavy-handed. … What, precisely, is Mr. Ferris getting at with his invention of Tim’s walk-till-you-drop illness? No doubt the author intends it as a symbol for something modern and troubling—but what?" Gabriella Stern

Entertainment Weekly 2.5 of 5 Stars
"It doesn’t help that Ferris’s narrative attention tends to drift as far afield as his hero does. … Still, there are passages in The Unnamed that reinforce the promise of Ferris’ memorable 2007 debut, the Office-like cubicle dramedy Then We Came to the End. … But in the end, too much of The Unnamed feels like a rushed second draft rather than a fully integrated and polished novel." Thom Geier

Minneapolis Star Tribune 2 of 5 Stars
"Tim’s fellow lawyers have too much cardboard in them to make Ferris’s book another workplace novel, and Tim dominates the story too much for it to be a domestic saga. Nor does Ferris focus on the details of Tim’s affliction itself enough to make it a work of medical fiction. So how to classify this ambitious but unsuccessful icicle of [a] book?" Mark Athitakis

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Ferris surely means to write charmingly of a man and wife who call each other ‘banana’ and who have been through endless shared battles with an unseen, undefinable threat. … So it becomes that much more pitiful when he turns out to have given them no real way to withstand a biblical degree of suffering and sorrow. Yet he keeps their plight too lightweight and fanciful to invite real empathy." Janet Maslin

USA Today 1 of 5 Stars
"Ferris’ new novel, The Unnamed, resembles less a sophomore slump than a cliff dive. It may brim with artistic courage and ambition, but almost nothing about this humorless book works." Deirdre Donahue

Critical Summary

Following up a wildly successful debut novel is never an easy task, but readers who laughed out loud with Then We Came to the End may not know what to make of this gloomy novel. While critics complimented Ferris’s poetic prose and hauntingly evocative descriptions, they cited several real problems, including unlikable characters, inexplicably abandoned subplots, and some tedious hyperbole. Most of all, they were confused by Ferris’s ultimate message: Is The Unnamed a solemn inquiry into the ties that bind? A psychological analysis of personal weakness and suffering? A condemnation of men’s compulsion to be powerful and wealthy? A treatise on the human condition in the 21st century? Ferris’s intentions are as vague and elusive as the diagnosis for Tim’s baffling illness.

Also by the Author

Then We Came to the End (2007): Ferris’s debut novel takes an original, often comedic, look at life in a corporate cubicle during the dot-com bust. The critics loved this book, but we’ll be honest—many on the Bookmarks staff didn’t. ( 4 of 5 Stars May/June 2007)