The premise of Joshua Ferris’ sophomore novel, The Unnamed, is intriguing. Tim Farnsworth is a high-powered criminal attorney in New York City defending one of his white-shoe firm’s key clients, a man accused of murdering his wife. But just as the case is about to go to trial, Tim is felled by the return of a mysterious illness he thought was in remission: He finds himself compelled to stop whatever he is doing and begin walking outdoors in a kind of directionless trance. And then to keep walking. And walking. Sometimes he has the wherewithal to contact Jane, his long-suffering real estate broker wife, before collapsing in exhaustion in a motel or field or alley; other times, he’s jostled awake by security guards or police. And this bout of the disease — one that doctors can’t explain — seems worse than the last.
Ferris apparently wants to explore the hardships facing a married couple when one member is stricken by a chronic disease. And Tim and Jane do maintain an almost perverse devotion to each other despite his condition. But Tim’s sickness is so bizarre, and its evolution so implausible (how is he able to hide it from his law firm for so long?), that one wonders why Ferris went to such trouble to invent it. Wouldn’t multiple sclerosis or ALS have done the trick?
It doesn’t help that Ferris’ narrative attention tends to drift as far afield as his hero does. The author dwells on certain peripheral plot points — the murder trial, Tim’s status at the firm, the sudden and unexplained death of bees — only to drop them just as abruptly as Tim does his sanity (or, more alarmingly, his frostbitten toes). Still, there are passages in The Unnamed that reinforce the promise of Ferris’ memorable 2007 debut, the Office-like cubicle dramedy Then We Came to the End. (Consider this well-turned phrase from one of Tim’s alfresco ramblings: ”He skirted a reservoir slower than shadow crosses a room.”) But in the end, too much of The Unnamed feels like a rushed second draft rather than a fully integrated and polished novel. Ferris — like Tim — should have sat still and lingered awhile. B?