Joshua Ferris' intriguing new novel moves along, sure-footed and inexorable as its protagonist Tim Farnsworth, a Manhattan lawyer who seems to have everything we'd ever want: a high-paying, satisfying career; a rock-solid, 20-year marriage; a gorgeous house; plans for an African safari. Not even a recalcitrant teenage daughter can mitigate the peaks of Tim's success.
What slows Tim down, though, is the unidentifiable condition - physiological? psychological? emotional? - that forces him into the streets to walk. And walk. And walk. For hours or for days, until he drops exhausted, and his wife Jane - if he has been lucid enough to call her before passing out - desperately races to find him before something unthinkable happens.
The premise of Ferris' second novel is strange but bracingly original, a marked departure from his mordantly clever debut, Then We Came to the End, a National Book Award finalist and PEN/Hemingway winner that slyly satirized employees of a modern-day ad agency facing the ugly truths of the dotcom bust. The Unnamed is darker and far more unsettling - even if, like most of us, you've experienced the fear and insanity that erupts as layoffs decimate an office.
The Unnamed is about loss, too, but no humor mitigates the ominous facts. If Tim keeps walking - one doctor calls his condition "benign idiopathic perambulation,'' though this demon seems anything but unthreatening - sooner or later he'll lose his job, his house, his wife, his life. Tim vacillates between melancholy and determination: "Depression followed in lock step with each recurrence,'' Ferris writes, but "[s]adness always gave way to a bout of pugnacity in which he thought again, I'm going to beat this thing.''
But Jane, too, is engaged in this seemingly unwinnable battle. Forced to give up her real-estate career to monitor her husband's whereabouts, she wavers in the face of what is swiftly becoming an emotional apocalypse. "Wouldn't it have been a luxury to have some crystal ball into which a diviner gazed to map for the young couple their future in sickness and in health, the specifics therein. This one - pointing to the man - is no good for you. Not too long down the line, sweetheart, he will break, and you will be left
carrying the load. . . . Because a failing body is no grounds for divorce.''
Ferris is equally compassionate to both parties. Surprisingly, almost tenderly, and despite his unrelenting refusal to churn out a predictable happy ending, he turns The Unnamed into a most unorthodox love story about commitment and sacrifice. "Was she up for this?'' Jane asks herself. Turns out she and Tim are as up for the whims of fate as any of us can be.