By Ron Charles
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; C04
By Joshua Ferris
Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown. 310 pp. $24.99
Joshua Ferris constructs his new novel, "The Unnamed," around one of Emily Dickinson's most devastating poems, 13 lines of frostbitten despair that begins, "After great pain a formal feeling comes." Keep that in mind if you're drawn to this book by memories of Ferris's witty first novel about the dot-com crash, "Then We Came to the End," which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. "The Unnamed" is another story about job loss, but the satire that fans relished in his debut has drained completely and been replaced by volumes of unrelenting hopelessness. Alternately profound and dismal, this new story about a mentally ill lawyer has the perverse attraction of a grievous wound you can't help staring at.
The title refers to an undiagnosed condition that periodically returns and ruins Tim Farnsworth's otherwise charmed life. He's a workaholic partner in a New York law firm with a devoted wife and a teenage daughter. The novel opens when Tim realizes that he's about to suffer another relapse of a strange compulsion to walk. "He knew the sensation as an epileptic knows an aura," Ferris writes. "It was like watching footage of legs walking from the point of view of the walker. That was the helplessness, this was the terror: the brakes are gone, the steering wheel has locked, I am at the mercy of this wayward machine."
You can't break away from the grip of these opening chapters as Tim and his wife struggle to manage this bizarre, irresistible impulse. Abandoning clients mid-conversation, sometimes mid-trial, he can't even finish a sentence before he's suddenly on the move, driven across the city in any weather, unable to stop until he collapses, his feet "like two engorged and squishy hearts."
Ferris usually writes in a steady, cool voice whether delivering the quotidian details of office work or existential observations about God that would otherwise sound grandiose. The effect is a terrifying portrayal of intermittent mental illness, the way the fear of relapse becomes a kind of specter, mocking each recovery and shredding any hope of a cure. Ferris describes Tim as "an immigrant living in a country of his dreams whose fickle authorities could nevertheless decide without warning to take him into custody, nullify his freedom and dispatch him to sorrow and dust."
Amid our all-consuming health-care debate, "The Unnamed" is a bleak reminder of the limits that real patients confront outside of political speeches and pharmaceutical advertisements. "Before he got sick," Ferris writes, "he was under the illusion that he needed only to seek help from the medical community, and then all that American ingenuity, all that researched enlightenment, would bring about his inalienable right to good health." The endless hospital visits, the chain of specialists passing the buck, the wrist burns left from nylon restraints, the desperate resort to clinical trials and quack diets and New Age remedies -- all these ordeals, humiliations and false starts shoot through the opening section with mesmerizing clarity.
But it's the effect of Tim's mysterious condition on this privileged family that remains so heartbreaking. Admit it: Despite all the progress we made in the 20th century, there's still something shameful about mental illness, some lingering, grossly unfair impression that the deranged should just try harder. You can feel that in Tim's determination to prove that he has "a legitimate physical malfunction," anything not to be "lumped in with the lunatics and the fabricators." In dark, candid moments, his devoted wife asks herself if she's really ready for this again, for giving up her own career, her whole life to become "his support staff and counsel . . . the sounding board for all the confusion, doubt, anger and frustration."
Wandering men have a long history in American literature, so it's tempting to read this condition metaphorically -- as, say, a grim reenactment of John Updike's "Rabbit, Run" -- but Ferris never casts Tim's uncontrollable perambulations as a dash for freedom from the constraints of modern life, the wife and child suffocating him back home. Although he eventually walks all the way to the West Coast, Tim doesn't "light out for the Territory ahead of the rest," like Huck Finn. The echoes here are older and darker, back to a largely forgotten story by Edgar Allan Poe called "The Man of the Crowd," about an inscrutable, ragged figure who can't stop walking through the city, even at the risk of his own life.
Unfortunately, though, "The Unnamed" is almost as schizophrenic as its central character. The first third, which has such irresistible drive and coherency, gives way to a scattered, largely impressionistic narrative that darts and skips through scenes spread across many years. Alternately moving and redundant and unrelentingly sad, the story frustrates our expectations: What exactly is it -- a medical thriller, a domestic drama, a murder mystery, a survivalist tale, a metaphysical fable?
At one point or another, Ferris starts down each of these paths with great promise, but as the novel wanders around, none of these elements comes to very satisfactory fruition. The faint murder mystery that tempts us at the opening is a cheat; the medical thriller that's initially so gripping peters out; Tim's wife and daughter are immensely engaging characters, but they're never given sufficient space to develop as the whole story is hijacked by Tim's condition, his endless trek from place to place, brushing by one stranger after another. Even the novel's most profound questions about the tension between mind and body are eventually exhausted by Tim's walking, overwhelmed by his ravings. When we come to the end, it's not really cathartic; it's just a welcome release.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.