Monday, June 14, 2010

Joshua Ferris's Day Off, pt. 2

As I wrote in my previous post, Joshua Ferris's first novel Then We Came to the End was a book publicist's dream: funny, timely, people-pleasing, and, like a good PowerPoint presentation, characterized by the smooth elision of anything truly unsettling. After that debut, it was difficult to guess what he'd do next. Then We Came to the End did not wear Ferris's obsessions on its sleeve: there was the sense of humor, probably its greatest strength (I did laugh aloud during the "buckshelves" scene), the interest in characters (like Karen Woo, with her off-the-cuff invention of "lastive acid"), even the workplace itself, that cathedral to the ordinary, with its banks of elevators, its encoded chairs, its "take-ones and tchotchkes." But it was tough to figure which – if any – of these elements Ferris would carry with him to Book 2.

Even so, The Unnamed is still a far cry from anything I would've expected. The Unnamed tells the story of Tim Farnsworth, an attorney afflicted with a condition that sends him inexplicably walking, in no particular direction and in all kinds of weather. It's also about his wife Jane, who succumbs first to alcoholism under the strain of her husband's affliction and then, eventually, to cancer. (No shoe shopping this time, thank god.) And it's about his daughter Becka, a rocker chick whose unwelcome obesity is the cause of much hand-wringing both for her and for her significantly more fucked-up parents.

The Unnamed is the kind of book that cries out for interpretation. Is Farnsworth's undiagnosable disease a metaphor for spiritual malaise in the face of worldly success? For that dark unknown at the heart of every marriage? For death? With its main character's sudden transformation – an ordinary life utterly dismantled by an unexplained affliction – it recalls philosophical hand grenades like The Metamorphosis and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, but its scope in terms of both the time the story covers, its emphasis on the protagonist's strained relationships with his family, and the length of the book itself, The Unnamed is reaching for something more panoramic. But what?

Let me be decadently honest: The Unnamed reminded me, more than anything else, of a book I'm half-ashamed of enjoying, the improbably named Audrey Niffenegger's breakout literary beach read, The Time Traveler's Wife. Now, before you begin lobbing time-traveling fetuses at me like so many overripe tomatoes, hear me out. Both books tell the story of a wildly, some might even say irritatingly affectionate marriage (in Ferris's novel, the long-married spouses call each other "banana" and screw in the bathroom of their favorite restaurant; in Niffenegger's, our heroine worries aloud, "Henry – do other people have sex as much as we do?"), periodically interrupted by the man's wandering, one through space, the other through time. In both books, the men leave home involuntarily, often sans adequate protection from the elements. In both books, the men lose lower extremities to the cold (in Ferris's novel, Tim's mummified toe drops off in his sock; in Niffenegger's, poor Henry's feet are amputated after frost bites). In both books, the couple has an only child, a daughter, who serves as the mother's consolation in the father's absence. And in both books, the man's disappearing act is pathologized by nearly all of the characters: the quest to find a diagnosis, a doctor who understands, is in both cases central to the characters' coming to terms with the plight.

The major difference between the two novels, of course, is the diagnosis. Henry is able to get one: his time-traveling is in his genes; it's even passed on to his similarly day-tripping spawn. The Time Traveler's Wife thus succeeds as a classic tear-jerker, heartbreaking but also heartwarming – don't blame him, he's just built this way. (Like a Delorean.) In The Unnamed, though, as the title would suggest, Tim doesn't get off so easy. Is he crazy? Is his behavior really outside of his control? It's this question that torments not just our hero, but that drives a wedge between him and those he loves and respects. Even his daughter wonders if he fakes it. A key detail in the narrative, for me, is that Tim tells his colleagues at the law firm that his wife is dying of cancer in hopes of eliciting their sympathy – and it works. When the reality of his situation is revealed, though, he loses his partnership in the firm. What's in a name? When it's the name of a disease, quite a lot, apparently.

All three of the main character in The Unnamed suffer from predicaments that straddle this line between straight-up medical condition and lifestyle choice. Tim's daughter Becka is obese*, increasingly so as she ages; his wife becomes an alcoholic, briefly lost in a Bermuda triangle between her hotel and a small town Bennigan's where she gets snockered. To me, it seems that Ferris is zeroing in on a question that, in a society where self-destructive behavior is increasingly pathologized, is at some point an inevitable one: what exactly constitutes an autonomous decision?

Don't we all want to leave Bennigan's?

Yet, although I find this idea compelling, I'm not sure it makes for compelling fiction. The characters here, especially Becka, start out promisingly: I adore the description of her singing "coffeehouse ballads cryptic with yearning" alone in her bedroom as a teenager. But, if character is action, an entire novel that focuses on involuntary (or at least little-understood and unconsciously adopted) compulsions doesn't lead to the most fascinating development of those characters. As other critics have pointed out, too, the passages about Tim's walks could be livelier and less pretentious stylistically. If this book had come first, I doubt it would have made Joshua Ferris famous; it's certainly not as superficially entertaining as his last. What I do respect, though, is that he didn't simply write Then We Came to the End all over again; he tried to do something riskier and weirder. And for that reason alone, it's worth going on this walk with him.

*I don't mean to imply that all obese people "suffer from" their obesity – I'm aware of the Fat Acceptance movement, Health at Any Size, etc. I just mean that the character Becka's weight is treated as a predicament within the context of this novel.

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