Joshua Ferris’ 2007 debut Then We Came To The End fearlessly wielded the first-person plural to chronicle the fall of a Chicago advertising agency through its employees’ eyes. There is no “we” in The Unnamed, his superbly depressing follow-up about a marital crisis with no exit, but the descent is more personal, frightening, and ultimately meaningful.
In middle age, well-respected workaholic lawyer Tim Farnsworth began to take long, compulsive walks in his sleep, waking up several miles from home with no memory of the journey. After dozens of treatments, he decides to obey his compulsions with the help of his wife Jane, who makes sure he leaves the house with warm clothes and a pack when he can’t stay still. But each episode leaves Tim more damaged, he botches a defense of a wealthy corporate client and falls out of favor with his firm, and Jane’s nightly searches for him interfere with her own career. She never doubts that his illness is real, but the strain of caring for him without being able to anticipate an attack causes her to seek her own escape.
Comparisons to White Noise and Tom McCarthy’s excellent 2007 novel Remainder are unavoidable, but The Unnamed only gains strength as it resolves into a more familiar picture from the obituary pages. The pseudonymous star of his own New England Journal Of Medicine article, Tim fears his unnamed ailment could disappear, leaving a void more terrible than its present consequences. Jane resents the responsibility of his lifelong care and wrestles with the decision to leave him to his long walks, even when he urges her to drive away without him.
The cascade of striking images with which Ferris depicts the dissolution of Tim’s life, from a doorman’s kind gesture to a treatment attempt that sees him handcuffed to the bed, bicycling his legs day and night, is matched by the sense of shared history Tim and Jane carry with them throughout The Unnamed, keeping the narrative from dragging itself under into stultifying bleakness. The sense of collusion Ferris carefully cultivates between the Farnsworths from the start is the last remnant of the detritus of their lives, a reservoir ready to be tapped in the last devastating hour.