Cover of _The Unnamed_: blue-sky background, black birds flying around it, book title in white, author's name in black (sans serif throughout)

This is the first nontrivial (as compared to, e.g., [book: Ant Farm]) book that I’ve read in a long while in a single day. It’s a strange kind of captivating, in that you wonder “what’s going to happen to this poor guy next?”

The single idea in [book: The Unnamed], drawn out brilliantly by Joshua Ferris, is that Tim Farnsworth sometimes just can’t stop walking. His legs start moving, and at that point he can’t stop. If he’s lucky, when it happens he’ll have a backpack already packed containing all the supplies he’ll need for hours, possibly days. During the winter, if he’s even luckier, he’ll already be wearing a parka and a hat. No matter how he’s prepared, his body will send him walking, and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it. Eventually he’ll grow exhausted and collapse into blissful sleep on a park bench or in a forest or wherever he happens to have landed. He’s often confused for a bum, except that he’s a high-powered New York lawyer who drops hundred-dollar bills here and there to get done whatever he needs to get done.

Is this a mental problem? Tim insists that it’s not. He’s at war with his own body: as his feet set off down the road, his rational mind tries to patch up the world around him. He asks the security guard at his law office to walk alongside him and do some favors for him while he’s off on his walk; he dictates orders to fellow lawyers as he’s marching away from them, while they stand confused and expect him to come chat.

Eventually the world is going to catch on to this. Tim is defending one of the firm’s longtime clients on a murder charge, but Tim can’t sit down long enough to talk with him. He makes up an excuse that his wife is dying of cancer and that he has to be by her side. But even that doesn’t explain why, in the middle of a client meeting, Tim stands up, unprompted by any phone call or text message, grabs his backpack, and heads off into the streets of New York.

The murder case goes to trial, and its lead attorney has been AWOL for weeks. The client is found guilty. Tim is dismissed from his job. He keeps walking. His wife considers leaving him, after so many years of waking in the middle of the night to find him gone, desperately driving around looking for him asleep under bridges or behind dumpsters. His life continues to swirl down the drain.

It’s not clear what any of this is “about,” really. Initially I thought it might be an allegory about American corporate life: a man keeps walking, and for what? But it’s not; his time as a lawyer ends, and he comes to enjoy the little things in life, but his life continues to collapse. It could well have some broader religious meaning about overcoming the absurdities of the body through the mind’s discipline.

But I don’t think any of that is why you read [book: The Unnamed]. You read it because of Ferris’s gifts for pulling you into the story and never letting you go. On the basis of [book: The Unnamed], and of many friends’ recommendations (not to mention Jay McInerney’s), Ferris’s [book: And Then We Came to the End] moves high up in the queue … after I’ve worked through 106 others, that is.