The Curse of the Open Road
Escaping the office is no picnic in Joshua Ferris' new novel.
Joshua Ferris' much-lauded debut, Then We Came to the End, is a novel about desk chairs, free bagels, e-mail, and gossip, set at an advertising firm. That is to say, it is a novel about distractions—from work, primarily, but also more coyly from what sincere types call life itself. On occasion, a copy writer lifts his head above the clutter and bemoans his inability to focus on the here and now. He considers quitting his desk job in favor of outdoor, manual labor. He dips into the oeuvre of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Then he gets back to wondering why Old Brizz bequeathed Benny Shassburger a totem poll. A realist, Ferris intimates that, no, we'll never manage to live "with nature in the present, above time" as Emerson once advised.
In his second novel, The Unnamed, Ferris drops realism to ask but what if we did livewithout distractions? Not just the petty ones, such as e-mail, but all the carrots: a promotion, a successful resolution to that all-important lawsuit, a vacation in the British Virgin Islands. What does the Zen lifestyle touted by Yogis, existence without the relentless pursuit of the next desired thing, actually look like?
Ferris examines this hypothetical by giving his protagonist, Tim, an unnamed disease that wrenches him out of the rat race. A happily married father of one with a partnership at a fancy Manhattan law firm, Tim can't stop walking. He might be at his desk at Troyer, Barr and Atkins, LLP or in bed with his wife, Jane, when suddenly he's seized with an irresistible compulsion to walk. If he's lucky, he'll have on hiking boots and a provision-filled backpack. But if he's hatless in winter, his disease is no less cruel. It forces him to slog for miles, teleologically without telos, along city streets and highways or through the woods, until he collapses into a deep sleep. Tim has several periods of remission, during which he plunges back into his lawyerly routine. But recurrences erode his grip on the pretence that his affliction might pass. He tries to keep up with his caseload, but his legs dictate his agenda. He can't make plans. Or rather, he can't keep to them—he walks out on his most important client—and must at last accept his lot: to wander the continent, cut off from his wife and child, Becka.
The morbid joke here is that Tim's life is akin to the widespread American fantasy of rugged individualism and unimpeded liberty, but that's not the life he ever wanted—The Unnamed is not a "be careful what you wish for" morality tale. Tim's previous existence of boring office work—the comic heart of Then We Came to the End—is rendered tenderly, as the object of nostalgia:
He worked past ten most nights, and most nights found himself sufficiently absorbed in something that required only the turn of a page or the click of a mouse—too little activity for the sensors to register. The lights frequently switched off on him. He'd look up, surprised again—not just by the darkened office. By his re-entry into the physical world. Self-awareness. Himself as something more than mind thinking. He'd have to stand, a little amused by the crude technology, and wave his arms around, jump up and down, walk over and fan the door, sometimes all three, before the lights would return.
That was happiness.
Tim never felt hemmed in by his desk job. He never pined for escape. Instead, he was a model office-dweller. As such, he was a model 21st-century American—too busy to worry about his role in the universe or other philosophical concerns, and content to think of the "physical world" as the room beyond the monitor. Happy just to flap his arms around an electric sensor. He's limited, faintly pathetic, and eminently recognizable.
Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.