Sunday, April 03, 2011

The Nameless, by Joshua Ferris

Ferris made quite a name for himself when Then We Came to the End. Although I snapped up a copy, I haven't actually got round to reading it and he's published The Nameless in the meantime. I noticed it sitting in the library so decided to try it out.

The central premise (it can't be a gimmick, because then this book would have nothing) is that Tim Farnsworth has some sort of condition, it makes him get up and walk for miles, walk until he cannot walk any more: then he falls down and sleeps. The condition has no name, all of medical science has been consulted and can't even work out whether it is a physiological or mental condition. It comes and goes, but when it comes, it stays for quite some time. There doesn't seem to be any correlation between its arrival and his work or relationships - it just is.

So, a lot of the book is just him walking, learning to survive out there in the big bad world, falling asleep, having bad things happen to him while he sleeps, then calling his wife (Jane) to come get him. Its not a good way to live.
Every so often, something nice happens to him, he gets looked after while he's vulnerable, but that's the exception, not the norm.

This puts a lot of strain on Jane's ability to work and consequently upon their relationship - the book is pretty good on tracking the times she can't work, and showing what it means for her to love him, the temptation to give up on him, to drink to forget about everything, but never really explains why he can't employ someone to follow him around or come get him - he is, after all, loaded.

It is such a weird condition that his teenage daughter, Becka, is convinced for years that he's faking it. When Jane employs her to babysit Tim, Becka finally gets that its real. They've spent a week bonding over Buffy DVDs and then, finally he walks, with her following
He shed his suit coat and his buttondown in the heat without stopping, without the least concern for how he looked to those he passed: a crazy man possessed. She picked up his discarded clothes and followed him... She trailed behind him, ready to seize on his first false move, at any subtle sign of fakery, but he never halted, he never paused... She watched him slog inside the KFC and collapse.
When he wakes, she's there and crying, apologising for not believing. This was on page 103, and the first time I felt any real connection to the novel. After she becomes a believer, Becka is a stalwart.

His family is all he has, when it comes down to it. He starts out as a partner in a law firm (and a good lawyer) but when they can't count on him (there is a bit of a sub plot involving a client on murder charges, someone Tim could save if he could work), his partnership is revoked. He fights it, even takes a menial lawyering job, thinks he has nothing other than his work to focus on, (hello - your family?). But then he needs to walk again.

He decides - and its not clear whether its because he thinks its better for his family or for himself - not to call to be picked up any more and so is getting further and further away from home. The more he walks, the more body parts (toes and fingers) he loses and the worse his health becomes. At one point he is admitted to hospital as a Richard Doe, with renal failure, enlarged spleen, sepsis-induced hypotension, dysentery and cellular damage to his heart. The final shift is when he seems to have some sort of mind/body split - its his body which demands to walk, to be fed, to sleep, complains of the various hurts and his mind which resists, calling his physical self "the other" and "brute want". There's a fair amount of musing about God, about the mind being captive of the body as he walks: this philosophising is one way in which Tim's mind fights back, along with appreciating the finer things in nature and art. Although Tim seems to win this war, after that his condition never goes into remission.

The end is really quite sweet. He's managed to keep track of what Becka is up to and when she's in Portland (I'm thinking it must be Oregon, which is a hell of a long way from New York), he goes to her. Their reunion was so tender, it brought a tear to my eyes. Its only then that Tim learns Jane is sick, and resolves to go home. His walks take him in all sorts of random directions, but he does have some wakeful periods when he has control, and he uses them to retrace his steps (he had tried buying a car, but was taken by the need to walk and never found the car again). Quite apart from the need to see Jane again, he needs to be "more than the sum of his urges", which is why he won't let Becka collect him.

Ultimately, I don't think that the unnamed in the title refers to his condition at all, but to something all humans have - the primeval wants that live beneath our sophisticated veneer and which do, like it or not, call the shots. What called him back, although he didn't really see it until he got back, was something even stronger: love.



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