Joshua Ferris

Earlier this month, 35-year-old novelist Joshua Ferris released his second novel, The Unnamed, to generally positive critical praise. While it maintains some of the same themes and dramatic concerns as its predecessor, the bestselling, highly regarded Then We Came To The End, the two books are entirely different beasts. Released in 2007, Then We Came To The End was the subject of our Wrapped Up In Books feature this month. It cleverly portrayed life at a dying Chicago ad agency (a milieu Ferris was familiar with, having worked at such an agency himself for several years) with dark, sometimes absurd humor and the unusual use of a first-person plural narrative voice. The Unnamed, which tells the story of a successful attorney stricken by a bizarre ailment that makes him wander uncontrollably, is much more downbeat and serious, although it never abandons the same fringes of absurdity, or its concern with the ease with which a comfortable life can be disrupted. Just before setting out on a book tour for The Unnamed, Ferris spoke to The A.V. Club about the choices he made in his first book, common misperceptions about his second book, and the similarities and differences between the two.

The A.V. Club: There are some thematic similarities between Then We Came To The End and The Unnamed, but tonally, they’re very different. Was there any triggering event that made you want to move in that direction?

Joshua Ferris: I can’t trace it to a life event; I think it’s more just a natural progression as a writer. Everything changes in the second book—tonally, character-wise, situationally—and on top of that, I think I wanted a challenge. I wanted to see if I could do it. 

AVC: Does Then We Came To The End seem to you now like a book tied to a particular time and place, that you could only have written in certain circumstances?

JF: It’s an interesting question—I would say yes, but I’m not sure that all books aren’t that way. I think that might apply to any book I was writing. The book was kind of the product of this enormous infatuation I had, not only with the office and office politics, but with perspective, and trying to tell a story from as wide a range of perspectives as you possibly can. I tried to capture it all with the first-person plural, but once I settled on that, I used it to tell the story from as many angles as I could. I guess, to put it romantically, it was about a love affair with the craft of perspective.

AVC: The narrative voice is one of the most memorable things about the book. Were you ever frustrated with it?

JF: Once I had the voice, I knew I wasn’t going to fall off the bicycle. I tap right back into it. It really was like learning how to ride a bike—you never forget, and I was able to carry it along with some ease. I never encountered any stumping problems that left me not knowing what to do, so I was mostly able to hold my ground. Of course, I should mention that it took me a long time to actually acquire the voice; there were a lot of frustrated attempts along the way, revisions to long sections and versions of the book that I abandoned. So it took a long time, but once I had it, I had it.

AVC: Did you ever second-guess whether it was the right choice?

JF: I always knew from the beginning that this was the only way to write this book—that it had to be in first-person plural if it was going to illustrate how the individual becomes part of the collective. I had no interest in writing the book in a more conventional voice. It goes back to that fascination I had with telling a story in multiple ways. It was the only choice I gave myself, really—I said “This is it, pal. If you can’t tell a story this way, you’re going to have to abandon the book. Write it this way or give up.” And, actually, I did give up for a couple of years until the voice finally hit me, and that’s when I finished the book. But it was do or die for me with that voice.

AVC: There are two moments where characters break somewhat from that voice—Lynn Mason’s chapter, and Joe Pope’s speech where he talks about wanting to never be part of a group. And those are both upper-management characters. Was there a specific reason you picked them to move away from the collective voice?

JF: It seemed institutionally appropriate—when you’re a member of management, you’re usually not one of the group. Sometimes you have to make decisions that necessarily exclude the collective. It’s more difficult to be a friend—even though they know each other and they treat each other like friends, it’s more of a challenge for them. It’s just institutional fact; the two characters that are the most aloof are the ones who have the most responsibility. If someone were plucked from the group and given those responsibilities, they might find themselves growing more aloof, just by virtue of that promotion. Suddenly the group culture excludes you. I saw this in my own working life, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence—I sensed a kind of loneliness in middle managers especially. The people at the very top could fall by and grace you with their presence and give you a little largesse, and you’d be “Oh, I’m so beloved.” In a way, it was kind of like flattery. The middle managers didn’t quite have that cachet, but at the same time, they had to seem like they were of that caliber. So there’s a little bit of loneliness at the heart of those with a little bit of power.

AVC: It serves to humanize them, but it’s a fine line to walk; it could easily have come off as flattering, that you portray the managers as more human because they’re just better people.

JF: Yeah, and I think that was pretty important to me at the time—Hank Neary, in the final chapter, talks about how he abandoned his “angry book about work,” and I never wanted to write an angry book about work. And I think one of the ways you avoid being angry is to avoid being angry at the people in power. They might do crappy things, and piss you off, and make bad decisions, but they shouldn’t be hated simply because they’re in power. And I thought it was important to humanize them if the book was going to be even-handed to all the different ways you encounter people at work.

AVC: The book has a lot of humor in it, of a sort that’s very familiar to anyone who’s spent time in the corporate world, but it was also very well-received by critics, who aren’t often kind to books that contain a lot of humor. Why do you think that is?

JF: I think you got it right. I think if there hadn’t been the one passage of the book that mostly abandons the humor, and focuses very intently on one person’s struggle with cancer, it wouldn’t have been a critical success. It would have been thought of as a comedic novel that didn’t have any real undergirding. So that was a very deliberate decision, to say “Well, if you think it’s all fun and games, it’s not.” There’s a lot of very serious things going on, not only focusing on the way the collective doesn’t have a monopoly on knowledge, but that these individuals exist outside of them, that the collective doesn’t have any real idea of an individual’s emotional life or difficult circumstances, or what they cling to. So that was my approach: We’re going to have as much fun as I can possibly provide, but the serious things that might normally pass by you are not going to be lost. And I think the critics responded to that; they said “Okay, I’m laughing, which is maybe not something I should do with a quote-unquote "literary’ book, but at the same time, I’m being provided with some emotional ballast by giving me an intimate portrait of one character in particular in contrast to the collective.” I’m fortunate that I had very sympathetic readers, but ordinarily, you’re right—if a book makes you laugh too much, it shifts from “literature” to “entertainment.” It’s a very specious and destructive distinction—certainly very unhelpful. Humor is a very big part of life, and if you exclude humor from your book, you’re not capturing a very important part of human experience. 

AVC: A lot of it has to do with the type of humor you employ. The sort of exaggerated situational comedy you use in the book fits it better than other styles of humor might.

JF: That’s one of the things about comedy—I think it works best when it’s contextualized, as opposed to kind of an island of cleverness. When you can place the humor in context… there are scenes in the book that are actually very tragic situations, but the humor comes from the fact that these people are just reacting naturally, like they would on any other day. The humor comes from the disparity between the way they should be acting and the behavior they naturally gravitate toward. In the hierarchy of humor, I think that’s a lot more organic than just a bunch of clever one-liners—not that those can’t be very funny, but in this context, it wouldn’t seem as natural.

AVC: Your new book, The Unnamed, has a lot of thematic similarities to Then We Came To The End, but it has an entirely different emotional focus. What was the impetus behind that change?

JF: It’s a very difficult question, because I could give you a dozen different answers about how and why the idea came to me, but what I really wanted to do was to talk about disease. And I wanted to do it in a way that was without baggage, so that the reader came into the book expecting nothing. I wanted to address all the aspects of how a disease could affect a man and his family, without recourse to a solution. So it was important to me to go to places that were as raw and stripped bare and excruciating as possible, because I felt like that was the most honest way to discuss disease. The interesting thing is that many people have now started to read the book as if it’s a metaphor for something. In fact, it’s not a metaphor for anything. So, people ask me, what does the walking mean? The walking is the walking. It’s not a comparison, but it’s certainly an illustration. When people say that Tim decides to leave, or Tim decides to walk, it would be as wrong-minded as if they were to say that Gregor Samsa decided to turn into a cockroach one morning. He’s not deciding; he’s walking because his body is diseased, his body is troubled. So the preeminent motivation for me in writing the book was to document the existential agonies that occur when disease takes over your life. 

AVC: Reading the two books in such close sequence, it’s inevitable to compare what happens to Lynn and what happens to Tim. To me, what gives The Unnamed a lot of its emotional power is that there’s no place to look away from what happens to Tim. 

JF: That’s a wonderful compliment. The two are a kind of mirror reflection of one another, and while you can put the blinders back on and sort of leave Lynn in the middle of the situation she is in, in The Unnamed, you can’t blink. You can’t look away from the devastation that the disease brings overall. So it’s unsparing in a way that Then We Came To The End was not. It was not easy to not be funny—that’s my natural way to go, to be comfortable. But I couldn’t do that with The Unnamed. I had to focus on the horrors of the disease—and it’s a disease that has to be taken as a real disease, or otherwise you will go looking for metaphors, which I think is the wrong way to read it. If I had started to wink at the nature of the disease, there would have been no stakes. You would have thought, “If he’s not treating it seriously, as if it were a real thing, why should I? Why should I be emotionally invested?”

So I couldn’t look away from it either; I had to be totally in it. The whole time I was writing, I had to fight my normal inclination to be funny, to sort of patch humor in, in order to convey all of the disruptions of the disease to the family dynamic, the loss of individuality, the impact on professional life, and the sanity of the main character. Of course, that’s not to say it never sneaks in; there’s some black comedy in there, like when he shows up to court wearing a bicycle helmet and won’t take it off. But there were times where I felt I was pressing a little bit too hard with the humor, and I had to pull back, because the overriding concern of the book was to create this disease that had no cure and make you pay attention to every emotional stage of what happens.

More Interview