Friday 19 February 2010

'this wayward machine'

The Unnamed
by Joshua Ferris

I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of this novel several months ago and have put off writing up my thoughts until the timing became more important. It isn't often that there's such a large gap in between reading and writing for me but I can say that my enthusiasm for this book hasn't dimmed in the interim; in fact because I started off feeling fairly ambivalent about it and gradually became caught up in its many strengths, it is a book that I am as enthusiastic about now as when I finished its final page.

I remember when Ferris' first novel And Then We Came To The End was published to some acclaim. I gathered vaguely from what I read that it was set in an office and was funny. I was working in an office at the time and it wasn't in any way funny so I gave the book a miss. Whether that was a mistake or not I don't know but his, by all accounts, very different follow-up shows him to be a writer unafraid of making some bold choices and producing some dazzling prose along the way. At first it seems as if the concept is all; Tim Farnsworth seems to have everything going for him: Successful career as partner in a law firm, beautiful wife, attentive daughter, large house in the suburbs. All of which makes his condition all the more baffling.

The night before, he had been wheeling the trash down the drive to the curb, one in the morning. It was the second of three bins. He knew halfway down that he would not be back for the third. He knew the sensation as an epileptic knows an aura. As an epileptic feels the dread of an uncoming seizure, he was crestfallen, broken-hearted, instantly depressed by what was now foretold. It's back.

What has returned after a four year absence is Tim's 'condition', something either physical or mental or both that sends him walking out of his own life, away from his home until his body collapses, exhausted, when it can go no further.

He looked down at his legs. It was like watching footage of legs walking from the point of view of the walker. That was the helplessness, this was the terror: the brakes are gone, the steering wheel has locked, I am at the mercy of this wayward machine.

It is an action which Tim cannot control, irrational by any definition, a risk to himself and a strain on his family. Like a wayward teen he has often made a phone call home in the early hours, giving his location so that his loyal wife, Jane, can come and pick him up. But what can you do when your condition has no precedent, when medical and psychiatric authorities can provide you with no treatment, prognosis or even a name? Tim attempts to absorb this compulsion into his working life; when it sends him careening out of the office as he works to defend a client on a murder charge he invents a family crisis as cover, pretending that his wife has cancer. But as his walks continue and nature begins to wreak its impact on his body, the cold weather stealing a toe, then a finger to frostbite, his position becomes more and more untenable. His mental state is questioned too, what to make of his encounter with a shadowy figure bearing information and even a murder weapon for the case on which Tim is rapidly losing his grip? His locomotion doesn't allow him to pursue the lead and we wonder if such a meeting is even possible.

At home the returning crisis and its remission have the effect of momentarily bringing Tim closer to his daughter, Becka, whose social awkwardness and problems with weight have isolated her. With this newly dependent father the two are able to converse with a new openness. Tim begins to find pleasure and worth in small things, determined not to take his life for granted, but any progress is short-lived and before long he is on the move again. For his wife, the effect of all this anxiety and second parenthood is a descent into alcoholism, a condition that mirrors Tim's own addictive compulsion. What is extraordinary throughout the novel is the strength of the connection between Tim and Jane, even in their disconnectedness. In the face of huge obstacles they have moments where they remain as united as ever, an impressive, touching and ultimately sad predicament.

They stared into the essential mystery of each other, but felt passing between them in those rare moments of silence the recognition of that more impossible mystery - their togetherness, the agreement each had made that they could withstand the wayward directions they had taken and, despite their inviolable separateness, still remain. It had nothing to do with how age and custom had narrowed their circumstances or how sickness had shapes them outside their control. It was not a backward but a forward glance.

So what does this condition represent? What is Tim running from? What I feared initially was going to be another novel about early male crisis or rejection of modern progress or middle class convention has far grander ambitions. Tim's condition is open to many interpretations and opens up many social and philosophical ideas, even developing into a kind of dialogue of Cartesian dualism between the competing forces within Tim. As his condition worsens and he wanders alone, having rejected any help from his family, giving himself over to 'it', his mind and body separate; or perhaps more accurately, his reason and this other become discernible voices, battling it out for control.

"You go on and on about how cold and hungry you are," he said. "The night is long, you say. Good shoes are not just a luxury. But then you're off and thee's no appeal. There's no explanation for your behaviour and no memory of your complaints. Are you not still cold? Are you not hungry? What is your purpose, your aim, but to hurl us both into suffering and darkness? Speak to me! You destroy my life, you rob me of my will, you troll me through the streets like meat on a hook. You have laid plain all my limitations and my total illusion of freedom. To what end? What do you gain from this?"
The other limped along steadily, saying nothing

Ferris also maintains the ambition for his tale by keeping the scale grand. The time covered, the landscape traversed, the cost exacted; Ferris really makes Tim suffer, those lost digits are just part of the toll paid during his odyssey. You cannot help but admire a book this brutal, a book prepared to make its central character suffer so much in the examination of fundamental ideas about human freedom, purpose and ability. It is a bold statement to take on the literary heritage of someone like Beckett, some of the fans of Ferris's début may well get the shock of their lives, but that ambition should be rewarded. It isn't a perfect book, the wandering of its hero leads to the odd moment of wandering on the page, but it is a brutal look at Man in the modern world, and heralds Ferris as a writer to take very seriously indeed.


Anonymous,  21 February 2010 at 17:20  

I received a suprise advance copy of this, suprising because I didnt like his first book very much, possibly because i was working in a very similar office at the time. I nearly gave thios away but after seeing it on Kimbofo's Reading Matters and on here with two praising reviews I will now definitley give it a whirl.

William Rycroft 21 February 2010 at 21:04  

I'm glad you're going to read it Simon, it's well worth a look. Please feel free to return here when you have and let me know how you found it.

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