Joshua Ferris distances himself from the office life that made his debut novel a National Book Award finalist and begins his second novel, The Unnamed, with its protagonist, Tim Farnsworth, abruptly walking out of his Manhattan office building.
Tim is a Harvard-educated partner at a prestigious law-firm. He has a beautiful wife who sells real estate, a teenage daughter who plays guitar, and a suburban home with photographs in the stairway and other clichés that Tim repeatedly swears to stop taking for granted. But Tim is forced to leave all this behind when, after years in remission, his mysterious “walking thing” returns, and his body begins taking his mind hostage on grueling hikes to barren lots, snake-infested fields, and seedy Newark alleyways. Tim and his wife have traveled the world in search of a specialist, sub-specialist, or quack who can give them an answer, but the neurologists say it’s psychological, the psychologists say it’s neurological, and the closest they’ve gotten to a diagnosis is “benign idiopathic perambulation,” which is both meaningless and wrong.
Walking from New York City to Portland to Louisiana and back may seem like a great opportunity for Ferris to take his sharp observations on the road, but instead, Ferris chooses to move from the social to the psychological, and with help from Beckett, he shows us a man too full of dread to take in his surroundings. Strangers are helpful, indifferent, or dangerous, and locations are remembered primarily for the illnesses and injuries acquired in them. But inside, a vivid battle takes place between Tim and his Id, and the dialogue between the two becomes darkly humorous as Tim struggles to discern his body from his mind from his soul.
After Tim hits bottom, the novel begins to drag behind him as he limps from place to place in a medicated haze. But no matter how far gone he gets, Tim’s love for his wife and daughter continues to tug at him from somewhere outside his mind, and when he realizes that he must make it back to his family, both he and the novel proceed with renewed purpose.