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THE UNNAMED (Anglais)
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In "The Unnamed," Ferris describes an illness that compels his protagonist (Tim Farnsworth, a wealthy and successful lawyer) to drop whatever he is doing at a specific moment and then walk to the point of desperate exhaustion. Not surprisingly this idiopathic condition (medical professionals remain unable to diagnose or effectively treat it) wreaks havoc on his family life, and ultimately reduces his existence to a war between two parts of his identity -- one of which represents the demands of his body, the other of which stands in for his mind or soul struggling for mastery over those demands. At times, it becomes unclear which voice has the upper hand, which represents "health" or the real Tim, which is even speaking. As the illness recurs, he wanders the countryside of many states and regions of the country, suffering frostbite that disfigures his hands and feet even as his inner self is increasingly disfigured by his madness. One reviewer here calls it a parable; I agree.
I would like to challenge, however, a couple of the observations repeatedly made by reviewers here. First, I didn't find the plot to be so strikingly original. I'm not saying that Ferris isn't the first to think of it in this specific form. But it's a rather simple narrative starting point: What would happen if I gave my hero a compulsion simply to walk out of his life? Taken to its extreme, where might such a compulsion bring him? This is a question that, as we see in the book, ultimately strips away the incidentals of life and leaves us with basic issues of love and identity. By the way, there are plenty of works of literature that work similarly, ranging from Shakespeare's "King Lear," to Jean-Paul Sartre's "Nausea," to Anne Tyler's "Ladder of Years." Create a narrative premise that takes away all the superficial things in life that seem to matter; see what's left.
Second, what that leaves us with -- as readers who become involved in Tim's mental combat -- is the sheer power of Ferris's prose to evoke that inner reality. Unlike some other readers here, I found that prose to be wonderful. No writer should try on this kind of minimalist narrative structure unless he wants to test his ability to create a language that is luminous, transparent, richly evocative both of desperate interior states and of the state of nature. Ferris meets this challenge. His prose is simple, amazing, and beautiful: "He would tell her anything, of course. Yes, of course he would tell her that he loved her and that the soul was vibrant and real and death only an interlude. His banana, how she had taken care of him. She had come to him in far-flung places no matter the time of day or night." I was moved and mesmerized by the writing.
This book demands that the reader give herself over to it as completely as the husband (and wife and daughter) who are at its center surrender themselves to life's whirlwind. It's not an easy book to read, although it is a page-turner. It's an unrepeatable and bravura literary performance.
This could have been a spellbinding book. Tim's enigmatic illness is an inventive metaphor for any mighty stressor that can bewilder and impale a marriage. Ferris also uses it to explore the differentiation between mind and body and examine the breaking point of the human spirit. He brings alcoholism into the narrative, which is a clever analogy to the walking illness, as it raises many of the same questions, i.e., is it controllable? Can you conquer it with will--mind over body? Or does the body overtake the mind? These issues were implicit in the novel, but meagerly addressed.
Too much narrative is spent on the grinding details of each walking episode and the frustrated search for a cure. Even the family interventions become repetitive after so many attempts. I was slogging through tedious, overwritten, and bloated iterations that descended into melodrama. And Ferris' use of stream-of-consciousness to illustrate Tim's intervals of incoherence was laced with awkward parody. The third person and very detached point of view was precarious to begin with; it eventually declined into one despairing note. Additionally, he threw in some red herrings and manipulated the reader around some close curves that abruptly or insincerely dissolved.
There was so much potential here. I recognize the brilliant symbolism and the harrowing forces that encumber this family. Ferris is an adroit writer, in that he pens masterful metaphors and riveting ideas. But the narrative pounded like a sledgehammer of Tim's misadventures and devolved into a mere sketch of the family. He should have trimmed these episodes and concentrated on penetrating Becka and Jane; instead, he reverts to informational prose, telegraphing what happens and reporting on how Becka and Jane feel. The sequence of events is communicated through dry and hurried exposition as the climax approaches. It does not sustain, even if his purpose was to heighten the poignancy of Tim's absenteeism from his family. We are swallowed in Tim's illness without the balance of inner dialogue and animated experiences of Jane and Becka (which was present at the beginning of the novel but shifted into the illusory). We dryly observed rather than experienced. The climax was colorless and lost luster in the shadows of stream-of-consciousness. The story became sludgy and stultifying.
I appreciate that Ferris experiments with different styles of writing and isn't stuck on one approach. I thoroughly enjoyed his first novel, Then We Came to the End, which was a socio-comic send-up of an ad agency in its final days. But The Unnamed was undisciplined and self-conscious. I encountered authorial autism and self-indulgence and I checked out emotionally way before I came to the end of this novel. This was a heartbreaking family, but the narrative style was unbearably numbing and prevented my surrender to the story. The execution undermined its purpose and thwarted its brittle beauty.
Forty years ago, Tim Farnsworth would have been a character in a Louis Auchincloss novel. A respected litigation partner in a large midtown Manhattan firm, he is immersed in preparing the defense of a client who controls $20 million of corporate business and now faces conviction for the murder of his wife. In the midst of what should be intense trial preparation, Tim is stricken by a mysterious ailment that recurs in four-year cycles and compels him to walk to the point of exhaustion (his early treks evoke Neddy Merrill's frantic journey across Westchester County in John Cheever's "The Swimmer"). "Not an occult possession but a hijacking of some obscure order of the body," as his wife Jane thinks of it, "the frightened soul inside the runaway train of mindless matter, peering out from the conductor's car in horror." When he awakens in the early morning hours in a potato chip truck or curled up next to a Safeway dumpster, Jane, herself a successful real estate broker, leaves their comfortable suburban home to rescue him.
Adorned with every totem of success, Tim's outwardly perfect world quickly unravels. His partners (sketched with dark humor and the insight of a marine biologist assaying the occupants of the shark tank) no longer can tolerate his abrupt departures and remove him from the trial team and eventually the firm. In desperation, Jane handcuffs him to a hospital bed in their home, and details their daughter Becka, an overweight and disgruntled teenager who aspires to a career as a folksinger, to sit by her father's bedside watching endless hours of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" DVDs. "If he just had an expiration date," Jane reflects of her decision to leave Tim in Becka's care, "of course she'd sit with him." Dr. Bagdassarian, the physician Tim "disliked the least of all his doctors," admonishes Jane, "Try your best that he doesn't forget what it means to be human."
Tim's futile search for a cure to what one doctor describes, with unhelpful literalism, as "benign idiopathic perambulation" culminates when he shaves his head and dons a device that looks like a bicycle helmet designed to measure his brain waves. Bereft of hope, he eventually abandons what once was his well-ordered life to embark, in a "brain fog," on a pedestrian ramble from New Jersey to the West Coast.
After its increasingly grim account of the physical and emotional toll of Tim's westward journey, there's an undeniable power, even eloquence, to the concluding 50 or so pages of the novel, retracing his return trip in the face of Odyssean obstacles across America (the focus more on its varied, storm-blasted and sun-streaked landscape than its people) to reunite with Jane: "The path itself was one of peaks and valleys, hot and cold in equal measure, rock, sedge and rush, the coil of barbed wire around a fence post, the wind boom of passing semis, the scantness and the drift." Their intense devotion, especially Jane's desperation (expressed in a moving scene in a roadside diner when Tim offers her both love and freedom with a chilling "I don't want you"), reveals the tensile strength of the bonds that hold couples together in long-term relationships.
THE UNNAMED fails to fulfill its bright promise, not from some complacency that might be understandable in an author fresh from the enormous success of his first novel, but instead owing mainly to the lack of clarity in articulating a compelling vision. Choosing to dangle a multiplicity of explanations for Tim's plight --- from the hollowness of success in contemporary America, to the limitations of medical science, to the mind-body dichotomy, to the challenge of religious belief --- Ferris ultimately abandons the reader to the same uncertain fate. Like Tim, we long for "some measure of understanding, some small answer that might stand in for the clarification of all the mysteries in the world." Perhaps that murkiness was a conscious choice, and while it may inspire many animated book club discussions, it feels less an act of courage on the author's part than a failure of will. Obscurity, even in the name of art, is no virtue.
--- Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (email@example.com)
Tim seeks medical assistance from the leading medical professionals around the work, but they are unable to diagnose or treat his illness, further causing conflict in his life.
Ferris does a great job showing the reader not only how devastating the illness is to Farnsworth, but how it emotionally wrecks Jane, his wife, and 17 year old daughter, Becka. The book is not only harrowing, but consuming as Tim and his family are taken to the breaking point by this illness. Can the family survive Tim's illness, and if so, how long?
Ferris does a wonderful job creating well developed characters you will care about and root for. His mastery of dialogue is equally superb. "Unnamed" is a book about life and how we cope with life. It will cause you to think about it for a long time and examine your own life. The book will change your life; you will never forget the story.
I read this book based upon Ferris' previous book, "Then We Came to the End," which I thoroughly enjoyed. This book was even better, if that is possible, and did not disappoint.
I give this book 5 stars and highly recommend it, even if you never read Ferris' previous book.
1. Huh, this is kind of weird, maybe I'm supposed to figure out what's wrong with the protagonist, which is some kind of annoying disease.
2. Okay, I take back the 'annoying', because now I'm sympathetic to him, his family, and his plight.
3. This book is amazing.
4. Hang on, now he's lost his mind, even though nothing different seems to have happened. Or maybe it did and I wasn't paying attention because I was enjoying the turns of phrase and beautiful images.
5. Not so amazing anymore. People are starting to do stuff that I think I'm supposed to empathize with, but instead I'm getting annoyed again. And I think there's a murder mystery in here somewhere too that I forgot about.
6. I still don't know what's wrong with the protagonist but instead of not caring because it's an artistic choice, I just don't care anymore.
7. Now I feel a little like I'm reading a John Hersey book about a guy going on a pilgrimage. But not a good John Hersey book. Maybe I mean a Jon Krakauer book. But not a good Jon Krakauer book. Whatever.
Good writing does not a good story make. I really wanted to enjoy this book the whole way through, but I stopped about halfway in. I think I could have put the book down and taken away an appreciation of style and character that didn't need the entire second half of the work to complete; I would have completed it myself.