In this post, Mr. AMB shares his thoughts on The Unnamed, an Oyster List novel I’ll probably never read:
I had my doubts about The Oyster’s Review’s “100 Best Books of the Decade So Far,” but there were some books I really enjoyed on there, like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, so I thought I’d give it the benefit of the doubt and try one of the top 10 books I hadn’t already read.
The Oyster Review described The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris as follows:
Tim—father, husband, lawyer—is possessed by a disorder that forces him to walk for miles in what Walter White might describe as a “fugue state.” But Joshua Ferris’s divisive second novel turns out to be less about the condition itself and more about the havoc it wreaks on his family life. The Unnamed is strange and moving, perhaps the most underrated book of the past half decade.
I’m a “father, husband, lawyer,” and I’m always happy to give underdog books a chance, so I bought it.
325 pages later, I don’t see the point of the novel. I don’t see why it was written, and I don’t see why anyone would read it.
I don’t demand that works of fiction convey a concrete ideological, emotional, or spiritual message, and I certainly don’t want to read a polemic dressed up as a novel, but a novel should convey something to the reader. If a novel doesn’t give the reader some renewed sense of purpose or understanding of the human condition, the novel should at least be an entertaining distraction with, say, emotional highs and lows, flights of fancy, or other fodder the reader can use to amuse themselves.
The Unnamed has none of the above: the book is simply a reminder of the grim truth that in this world there are senseless, unavoidable, unredeeming tragedies. Did I need that reminder? Do you?
I don’t fault Ferris for writing a sad book – but sad books can and should have redeeming values in them. One of my favorite books is Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, which Kurt Vonnegut said was “one of the unhappiest books ever written,” a book “so astonishingly pessimistic, in fact, that it can be called a daring experiment,” making Heller “the first major American writer to deal with unrelieved misery at novel length.” But, as John Self noted in a 2012 review, Something Happened is a good read, and the 569 pages of misery serve a purpose:
It’s a bizarre delight. Sentence by sentence, Heller peppers the reader with irony, bravery and foolishness, sometimes simultaneously. The telling is technically immaculate: pages of dialogue with multiple counterparties flow faster and faster under the reader’s thumbs. It is structurally brilliant, with Slocum’s story flowing unnoticeably from past to present and from one worry to another – so the reader has no docking points to get off at even if they wanted to. It is a cautionary tale, which offers a compellingly nasty angle on a portion of society and the questions people rarely ask of themselves (“I often wonder what my true nature is. Do I have one?”).
I assume Ferris was attempting a similar cautionary tale with The Unnamed, which, at various points, shows some degree of positive transformation among its characters. But each time that seems to happen, the utility of the transformation is dashed against the rocks by Tim’s relentless, inexplicable, and untreatable condition.
If I wanted to spend more time witnessing senseless tragedies, I’d turn on the news.
PS. The Misfortune of Knowing turned three-years-old TODAY!