The Unnamed ~ Joshua Ferris

Tim is a succesful lawyer. He has a loving wife and a daughter. He’s a workaholic who is good at his job. But as Peggy Lee once said, “Is that all there is”? “Then one day, he went away”. As did Tim, walked away from Jane. Compulsively, he couldn’t help himself. He chucked it all. Walked, and walked and walked. Although there were a few “remissions”, the “unnamed” disease always returned. The decline is long, painful and hard. He quite literally loses pieces of himself: toes, fingers. No one can figure out what ails him. He can’t figure it out himself, although what he would like is some diagnosis, something definitive. He and his wife both. Something definitive to make it real. Eventually, and at this point he may have need them, he is prescribed cocktails of psychotropic drugs. He talks with a doctor about “the voices you’ve been hearing”:

“Voice,” he said. “not voices. Voice.”

“sorry, voice.”

“And it isn’t a voice. It’s a pont of view.”

“A point of view?”

“A bleak and uninspired one, but convincing. Very evolved. He gains control over my powers – rhetorical, argumentative. Don’t ask me how. There should be docket numbers to our conversations.”

Urged to keep on taking the meds prescribed, Tim tells his doctor that

“Pharmacology is only one tactical maneuver in a protracted war.”

“What war is that?”

“The one we’ve been fighting for centuries. The one we’ve always lost, so far as anyone can tell.”

“Sorry. I’m not sure I understand.”

“Death. The will to live versus inevitable decay. What’s not to understand?”

What Tim suffers from on one level is modern life. Sensory overload has numbed him to a deprivation of feelings. He can’t connect to his wife, he can’t connect to his kid. He seems to “love” them, but what does “love” mean under these circumstances? He’s tied down to his job. The irony here is that he is also literally tied down throughout the novel, in order to restrain him from wandering off. He’s forgotten how to see around him. When he “walks” he sees nothing. Asked by Jane to tell him about what he sees on the lonely, solo journeys, he can’t say what he saw at all. He’s taken to walking with his head dow (‘nose to the grindstone’). His disconnectedness from his own body, his own self, his own life becomes so severe that he exhibits all the symptoms of a paranoid schizophrenic. As if he’s been forced to mimic this terrible mental malady.

The heartbreak in this novel is not Tim’s, but his wife’s who is so selfless, so loyal, so “there” for him, that she’s almost too saint-like.  While he is on one of his walks (of several years) she gets cancer, and puts her life in order, accepts her fate,

“She had actually heard from another woman in the ward that God had created cancer, with its lag time between diagnosis and death, to give the disbeliever time to reform. Chemo and radiation weren’t cures. They were modest foretastes of the hell the unrepentant could expect if they persevered in their godlessness.”

There is one direction to this novel. Down and again down. It is relentlessly without hope and when we realize that, we want to run – not walk – to finish it.


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