“The Unnamed” and the Unrelenting Novel

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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 UnnamedThe 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!


  1. Well, I didn’t even have The Unnamed on my radar, but this review has pushed Heller’s Something Happened up on my list. 🙂

    1. If you have any interest in Something Happened after reading the above, then definitely move it up your list. Heller himself said, “I used to think Catch-22 was my best novel until I read Kurt’s review of Something Happened. Now I think Something Happened is.” It’s awfully hard to explain to anyone why it’s such a good novel given how miserable it is and how boring the subject matter sounds, but it’s hypnotic, and once you get into it you can’t seem to stop.

  2. Surely there must be something worth reading in 325 pages! Call me contrary, but I really want to read it now. Currently in up to my knees in Rose Tremain’s The Colour. Hard lives, hopeless relationships, thwarted dreams. But the beautiful imagery flows through you, even when the protagonist imagines shooting her husband in the head after they have just made love. Spoiler: she doesn’t. I’m putting The Unnamed on my to-read list, and it’s all your fault!! It may, of course, be a fit of peek. I shall probably forget all about it when I read your next review. Keep ’em coming.

    1. To each their own! I consider your comment a compliment: I think a good review is one that conveys both the reviewer’s opinion of the book and conveys enough about the book that the reader can make up their own mind about whether they want to read it or not. I hope you enjoy The Unnamed more than I did.

  3. I can imagine the 100 best books (and there must be many 100 book lists out there) would vary among readers. At least you found some good ones on the list. Your review was rather blunt, so how do authors feel about “325 pages later, I don’t see the point of the novel,” this type of criticism? Honesty is the best type of review, but that one hurts. 😀

    1. Indeed. I wouldn’t have been so harsh on, say, a first-time novelist or someone struggling to make their mark with self-publishing. Ferris, however, is now on his third traditionally-published book (The Unnamed was his second), and he’s heavily promoted, so I figure that, for the sake of this blog’s readers, honesty trumped politeness. I haven’t been this frustrated with a pointlessly depressing book since Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams.

  4. I’m glad to have read this review, thanks. This book has been sitting on my shelf for about three years now and I’ve picked it up a handful of times…. read the first chapter and put it back with every intention of getting to it “someday”. I think you might have pushed me to stick this book on my “to be donated” pile.

  5. I remember hearing about this one when it first came out, and dismissing it as something I probably wouldn’t like. Sounds like I made the right choice. LOL

    I do like reading sad books from time to time, but as Mr. A.M.B. pointed out, there has to be some sort of redemming value.

    1. I prefer escapist entertainment with happy endings these days, but I can still appreciate depressing books as long as they have redeeming qualities. I’m going to pass on The Unnamed!

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