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.
This deeply unromantic individual forced into the wilderness can't adapt—can't make the best of his new situation. On his walks, as at his desk, Tim largely ignores his surroundings. Asked by his wife to describe what he sees en route, Tim draws a blank. He tries harder, then comes up with tourist-level observations made more banal with bland comparisons: "I saw the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even at this time of year, people are sitting on the steps out front like it's the Fourth of July." Nor does he achieve some new appreciation for the body he once treated as a typing machine. Rather than approaching "oneness" (that "something more than mind thinking"), Tim begins to think of his legs as separate from himself—a division Ferris represents through schizophrenic dialogue.
"You hang on the wheel of fortune. I rise upward on angel's wings. You turn in the gyre. I dream of old lovers with youthful smiles."
Sorry, pal, we're in this together.
"Prove it!" he cried.
What is a wing? What is a smile?
"You can't be smart," he said. "Only I can be smart."
I'm evolving, replied the other.
This confrontation with the mind-body problem is precisely the sort of big-picture issue that Tim the busy lawyer regularly avoided. It is also madness, in the clinical sense. After one of several hospitalizations, Tim starts taking anti-psychotic drugs. And they help; he raves less—backing away from the mysticism that he can separate his mind from his body, admitting that the mind is indeed "captive" to "[t]he body's decay." Needless to say, admission does not give way to acceptance. Tim takes pleasure in treating his errant legs like an enemy. If a grueling walk takes him miles from some intended destination, he refuses to rest. He makes the most of the hours when he's in control and retraces his footsteps, exacerbating his ever-more-severe injuries.
As in his debut, Ferris' prose is often flat, or else clunky with stillborn attempts at lyricism. "Overcast was riveted to the sky as gray to a battleship" sounds like the obviously wrong answer to an SAT analogy. In flashes, however, he abandons realism to great effect. After long marches, Tim sometimes finds himself in an apocalyptic landscape: "Wildfires burned across several square miles, closing highways and forcing evacuations. The rainless summer and the wind and the lightning had turned the brush border between counties into kindling. Flames left charred contrails in the land resembling the scars of comets running aground on the face of the ground." Heavily reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's end-of-days novel The Road, such passages reinforce that the world Tim's disease forces him into—the one without petty and not-so-petty goals—is bleak, ravaged, unfit for human life. Not that civilization is particularly hospitable. The strip malls, stale hotels, and highway overpasses that Tim encounters are just a different sort of "charred contrail." So again, The Unnamed avoids easy binaries: Office work and suburban sprawl lack and perhaps even deny grandeur, but without these distractions, there's nothing at all.
Building from the basic conceit of grand mal restless leg syndrome, Ferris gestures toward the culturally relevant issues he sets in motion, like the modern obsession with diagnosis. Long after Tim accepts that he'll never be well, he continues to seek a medical explanation for what ails him. But his affliction has neither precedent nor name. On a couple of occasions, Ferris nudges his readers to consider the possibility of a godly provenance. Is the unnamable to blame for the unnamed? I am that I am; it is what it is. Ferris also rummages around the domestic sphere. What is loyalty in the face of such implacable uncertainty? At what point does loving solicitude prevent a sick person, or his caretaker, from confronting the loneliness of a radically changed life? Being "tied down" takes on new meaning when Tim asks his wife and daughter to manacle him to his bed—a vain effort to thwart his wandering. A baggy novel, The Unnamed is frustrating to read. Characters drop in, clamor for attention, then vanish. Specific themes fade into more existential explorations. Subplots bend into narrative cul-de-sacs. One John Grisham-like storyline, about a lunatic who may have murdered Tim's client's wife, approaches conclusion before disappearing completely. Perhaps just as frustrating: This frustration is, in itself, a sign of the novel's success. It takes an often-rudderless, unstructured novel to make palpable Tim's rudderless, unstructured existence. You may find yourself compelled, in an inexorable, Tim-like way, to keep turning the pages—to see what happens next to this character trapped "in the present, above time," with only the most tenuous grasp of his own future.
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Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.