Joshua Ferris’ first novel, 2007’s Then We Came To The End, announced a bold new voice in American fiction — one which lay somewhere between Don Delillo (whose own work of fiction, Americana, gave Then We Came to the End its title) and Jonathan Franzen. In that instance, Ferris’ reach did not quite exceed his grasp, so to speak, but what the novel lacked in structural finesse, it more than made up for with the author’s bold style (it is written in an unusual first person plural and narrated by a sort of collective conscious) and ambitious bravado.
His second book, The Unnamed, speaks of the same disillusionment and urban anxiety as in Then We Came To The End, but it comes with a greater sense of authorial capability and sophistication. Ferris seems to be carrying through to their logical conclusions the moral and philosophical quandaries that he touched upon in his debut work — equal parts of Emersonian counter-culture and quintessentially twenty-first century ennui.
This time, his protagonist has a name, Tim Farnsworth; a man who, upon receiving a non-specific terminal diagnosis, decides to walk out on all the monotonous routines and constituents of a normal life — job, wife, family — literally. That is, he begins going on walks, compulsively; longer and longer walks which are obviously meant to symbolise a gradual estrangement for Tim from life itself.
The conceptual existentialism which this plot device evokes is cleverly established, and Tim’s sense of angst is made nicely believable, but I couldn’t help but miss the ultra-perceptive brand of laconic realism that Ferris had developed in his earlier work, and particularly the short stories he has had published in the New Yorker (in fact, if you only have ten minutes to spare, I would advise that you stop reading this newspaper right now and search for The Dinner Party on Google instead). Call it nostalgia, but I found some of The Unnamed’s most emotionally honest passages to be those which take place in offices, the same environment in which the events of the first novel are located.
Still, there is an awful lot to be impressed by here, and I suppose an author branching out is (usually) to be commended. What the narative loses from Ferris’ abandomnent of realism it more than makes up for with a vitality and poignancy that was, perhaps, missing in his earlier work
More than anything, though, The Unnamed is reassuring — not with regards to its subject — but for the reason that it cements its author’s reputation as one of the most interesting young literary figures currently at work.
The Unnamed is out now in paperback, RRP £12.99