In May of 2008, The New York Observer’s Choire Sicha penned an emasculating critique of America’s most celebrated young male novelists. The (slightly tongue-in-cheek) piece, entitled “ Papa Hemingway! Where Are the Men?” accused the young literary lights of going soft, as it were (Gawker quickly reacted with a post entitled, “Male Writer’s Having Trouble Getting it Up”). Our latest crop of authors—Keith Gessen, Jonathan Safran Foer, Dana Vachon, Jeff Hobbs, and Joshua Ferris, to name a few—were “malformed, self-centered boy-writers,” Sicha proclaimed, anti-Mailers who shied away from sex and controversy. They were scared of big themes and “ashamed of ambition.” Their female counterparts were tougher. The article became an online sensation.
“It would probably be a lot more financially rewarding if I didn’t have the impulse to go in different directions,” he says, “so I can’t say that I maneuvered deliberately away from a comedic follow-up, or a book that was radically different.
Joshua Ferris appeared to fit the profile perfectly. A photogenic, 30-something Brooklynite, his bestselling 2007 debut, Then We Came To The End, was a hilarious send-up of contemporary American office life. Ferris was a fictional David Sedaris, a sober Kingsley Amis. He was talented and inventive (much of the book was written in first person plural), but most of all he was entertaining. And that’s a tricky word for aspiring literary lions.
All of that is about to change. Ferris’s sophomore effort, The Unnamed, is a great many things, but it certainly isn’t light reading. And it’s not meant to be. A dark, emotionally draining tale of pain and love and longing, it concerns Tim Farnsworth, a successful New York City lawyer (and decidedly less successful husband and father) who has developed a baffling illness, the only symptom of which is an uncontrollable urge to walk—anywhere, at any time. Soon, the illness comes to threaten every aspect of a life Tim has long taken for granted. Or is it doing just the opposite—opening his world to possibility?
Ferris and I have commandeered a small table in the barroom of the Brooklyn Inn, and are trying to ignore the spirited billiards games and piped-in blues guitar. After a flurry of positive press surrounding The Unnamed, he’s just received his first tough review, a takedown in the Times. But Ferris seems undaunted, even upbeat, as if it were in some ways the reaction he’d been seeking—proof that he’d successfully shed his old skin.
“It would probably be a lot more financially rewarding if I didn’t have the impulse to go in different directions,” he says, “so I can’t say that I maneuvered deliberately away from a comedic follow-up, or a book that was radically different. I just liked the idea. I felt like this was the story I wanted to tell.”
The Unnamed begins as a straightforward family saga, but soon drifts, as Tim’s illness intensifies, into less definable territory. The tone of the novel changes, and then changes again, as Ferris begins playing with literary constructs, until the book is proceeding on two planes—one based in reality, the other more tenuous and allegorical. In some ways, it’s no surprise, coming from an author who counts among his literary heroes renowned tricksters and ventriloquists like Marquez, Nabokov, Pynchon, and Jim Shepard (Ferris’s former teacher and co-National Book Award finalist).
“I’ve been a craft wonk for a long, long time,” Ferris explains. “I’m always thinking about ways to move the ball forward, how to push perspective, what you can do at this late date with unreliable narration.” He pauses, choosing his words carefully, as he does on the page. “I’m just disposed toward seeing how far you can stretch reality while remaining rooted in realism. I think the tension between those two things is one of my most satisfying rewards when it’s well done.”
While Then We Came To The End took place almost entirely in a single location—the familiar confines of a corporate advertising agency (“13 ways to describe a stapler,” Ferris says, grinning)—Tim’s marathon walks allow The Unnamed to unspool over vast swaths of (mostly broken) America. But the heavy action transpires in Tim’s slowly deteriorating mind. It’s a book at once wide open and intensely psychological (not to mention beautifully written). Perhaps the only thing The Unnamed definitely isn’t is consistently funny (although it has its moments), which may come as a shock to some of his earlier fans. I ask Ferris if he’s worried, and he sighs.
“I think for those readers who invest a bit more, the dividend will be paid off. For those who read it quickly…I read a review recently that said, ‘Why invent a disease when MS or ALS would be perfectly fine?’ Well, that’s not a reader I’m ever going to convince. So, it’s a risk: The reaction could be polarizing. But those people who respond to it respond to it strongly. And those people who don’t respond to it respond to it strongly as well. But it’s better to be provocative than boring.”
Which is exactly what Choire Sicha was saying. One thing is clear: It’s time to update The Observer’s list. For no matter what fate befalls The Unnamed, Joshua Ferris may just be the boldest young novelist we’ve got.
David Goodwillie is the author of the forthcoming novel American Subversive (Scribner, April 2010), along with the acclaimed memoir Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. He has also played professional baseball, worked as a private investigator, and been an expert at Sotheby's auction house. A graduate of Kenyon College, he lives and works in New York City.