When you go to the website for Joshua Ferris’s 2010 novel, The Unnamed, your screen fills with static for a second. Then it resolves into a grainy grey video of the main hall of Grand Central Terminal, like security camera footage, commuters walking to and from their trains. And then these little fuzzy blue circles appear over a handful of heads. When you click on one, the video pauses, and a small text bubble comes up. One says, “I look around, I wonder if I’m just sick. I see a cross-section of people, and I think, we are all machines, animals, some of us monsters.” Another quotes a poem by Percy Shelley: “Art thou pale for weariness/Of climbing heaven and gazing on earth/Wandering companionless/Among the stars that have a different birth.” They feel like a little of what each person has inside them, a bit of story or sorrow they keep inside themselves.
I think this is what Joshua Ferris’s work is, a song of this secret world. He writes about the isolation of modern life, our disconnect from the world at large and from the people around us. And he writes of the small, beautiful hopes of connection—through love, through hope, through body-breaking exertions.
The Unnamed is about a man named Tim who cannot stop walking. Tim comes home to Connecticut one night from his job at a high-powered New York City law firm and tells his wife, simply, “It’s back.” She bundles him in winter gear, packs a bag with provisions and a GPS. She finally falls asleep in the middle of the night and wakes up to find Tim gone, walked out of the house to who knows where. In the grips of this condition he is driven to walk, for hours on end, stopping only when he collapses, exhausted. No one knows why. No one has a cure.
Is it a metaphor? Maybe. Is it a conceit? Sure. But it’s a starting place. Every story has to start somewhere, and Tim’s starts with “It’s back.” For the first dozen or so pages, you don’t even know what “it” is, and the suspense builds like really good sci-fi: something is wrong, and you don’t know what. Ferris takes this conceit and builds a full, rich story about it. All of the rules—as in the best sci-fi—hold tight. All of the repercussions feel deep and true to the human heart.
Tim has a wife, Jane, and they have a daughter named Becka. Tim’s condition ravages his life, but their lives are intertwined, and so it ravages them all. Becka reads her father stories while he’s handcuffed to the bed. Jane picks him up from parking lots and police stations and curbsides, and waits for the next call when he’s gone. Worries the call will never come. And Tim is at war with his body, these legs that won’t listen.
I want to run away to live in the woods. I want to be surrounded by trees and birds and sky, to disconnect myself from the frantic bustle of city life, the frenzy the internet is pouring into my brain. I want to reconnect with my body, to do good hard work. I want my body to be tired and my mind to be calm. The Unnamed isn’t a cautionary tale against these desires, but it’s looking them in the eye. Sort of saying to them, “Okay, I hear you.”
Tim’s walking forces him to shed his attachment to his career, to comfort, to any sense of plan or control. His walking takes him out into the world, first within a radius of a seven- or eight-hour walk from his office or his home, but then farther afield. He is completely alone.
And all around him, the world is falling apart. It’s a world frighteningly like ours, with our superstorms and feet-deep snow and disappearing bees. I try not to think about it, but it feels like something’s wrong, right? Maybe everyone’s felt like this through the history of humanity—Armageddon seems to be prophesied once every few years—so maybe this is nothing new. But it feels wrong, so we try to ignore it. But it is right in Tim’s face as he moves out in the world. The winters are too cold, the summers are filled with droughts, fires, and floods. A carpet of dead bees falls on Madison Square Park. Birds fall out of the sky. The great cracks in the rightness of the world hover in the background of Tim’s life just as they do in ours. Maybe Tim’s story is set just a couple of years into our future. Maybe that’s what our world is really going to be.
The real reason I loved this book is that this world—Tim’s condition, the ailing planet—is just the backdrop of the heart of Ferris’s story to nestle into.
The heart of this story is big, bloody, and vigorously beating. It is Tim and Jane’s love, and the love of two parents trying to understand and connect with their daughter. It is Tim’s war with his body and the dark loneliness this takes him to, the flashes of beauty in the world it helps him find. It is the way we all fear losing our loved ones, losing our security—fear of helplessness, fear of change—nd how Tim, Jane, and Becka have to face this. They do. Because they have to, they can.
Little bits of The Unnamed are stuck in my head. A man clinging to a telephone pole in a flood. A daughter and her father on a bench in Tompkins Square Park. A sense of loss. A sense of isolation. A sense of love. For all its desolation, for all its characters’ helplessness, it’s a hopeful book. Because even when they can’t connect, can’t reach each other’s inner world, they try. They valiantly, desperately try.