When Joshua Ferris published his hilarious and watertight debut novel, Then We Came to the End, in 2007, much was made of the firsthand experience he’d been able to draw upon. The book was set in the ergonomically efficient workspaces of an advertising agency in Chicago, and Ferris happened to have held jobs at a couple of Chicago ad firms himself.
Still, you can’t in good faith charge a young New York novelist with self-absorption if he has to dig out his childhood Bible and read the gold stamp on the cover to remember whether he was confirmed in a Lutheran church. This was what transpired the other day in the Crown Heights apartment that Ferris, who is 35, shares with his wife and baby son.
Ferris has followed Then We Came to the End, a National Book Award finalist that was on the New York Times’ list of the ten best books of 2007, with The Unnamed, a novel that can claim no basis in his personal history. Technically speaking, the book has no basis in any history. The plot is carried along by a mysterious disorder of Ferris’s invention that forces Tim Farnsworth, the otherwise charmed husband and father at the center of the novel—happy marriage, successful legal career, large house in a Westchester-like suburb—into sudden, periodically occurring walks. One baffled neurologist whose help Tim and his wife, Jane, seek calls it “benign idiopathic perambulation,” but the classification grows inadequate as his condition gets worse.
“As far as I know, this disease is entirely made up,” Ferris says.
These are long and trancelike walks that end wherever he passes out, such as a hair-weaving salon in the Bronx or behind a boarded-up Safeway in Newark. His wife is powerless to help, beyond dutifully retrieving him from a string of police precincts and emergency rooms. (They have tried tethering him to a wall, but this proved “just too barbaric.”) She quits her job, bundles him in thermalwear and Patagonia, and fills his alpine pack with moisturizer and a GPS system.
Some readers and critics have seen in the disorder a metaphor for the urge toward self-sabotage. Others, perhaps hung up on the notion that literature be literal, have interpreted it as too unbelievable to be convincing, or as something so believable they think they once saw a segment devoted to it on 60 Minutes.
Ferris, who is so boyishly gangly as to appear incapable of filling a pair of adult-size trousers, let alone writing with such sureness about the cycles of exasperation and tenderness that a married couple is at risk of falling into during middle age, has taken a big risk. His second novel is more ambitious and rewarding than his first, but also more likely to alienate his base.
The Unnamed does possess a few funny moments: the courtroom appearance Tim makes in his brain-monitoring helmet, or the interior monologue that occurs when his mental collapse is further along. (“Hands and feet are cold … McDonald’s is quick, tasty, and conveniently located. Everyone loves TV. Discharging semen is an unbeatable sensation.”) Still, it’s a monumental downer. Ferris said that six months of the three years he spent on the book were given over to “working out how to make the disintegration into madness feel real.” It was heavy lifting compared to his first book (which he wrote in fourteen weeks), and it’s a more difficult book to fall in love with.
Ferris and his family divide their time between Brooklyn and a house in Hudson, New York. Ferris split his childhood between his parents. His father was a financial adviser outside Chicago, and his mother remarried and lived for a time in Key West, where she struggled to find employment in social work and worked as a prison guard. After college (University of Iowa) and before the copywriting gigs that led him to pursue an M.F.A. (UC–Irvine), there were stints as an English teacher in Japan and a technical writer on the Penn State campus, where his job entailed transposing articles written by scientists whose command of jargon wasn’t up to snuff into high-flown academic-journal gobbledygook.
Ferris seems eager to lay out all the formal aspects of the new book that made it a fundamentally distinctive feat from the first (and he sounded graciously frustrated by admirers’ penchant for classifying Then We Came to the End as satire or likening it to The Office).
“I don’t think the first taught me anything about how to write the second—I used tools from two different belts,” he says. “Because I set the action in Then We Came to the End in the familiar environment of an office, I could get away with anything. Absurd situations were recognizable.” Meanwhile, the premise of The Unnamed was so absurd, he said, “I had to use everything in my power to make the story feel real.”
This may be the sort of self-issued challenge you could file under “Answers to problems most novelists wish they had: achieving maximum stimulation when critical success comes too easily.”
“It was always an interesting process of discovering how my ambitions paired up with my abilities,” Ferris said of The Unnamed. “I wanted to find out how a man could go toward trying to reconcile his obligations with a physical condition that leads him astray. I wanted to stack the deck against myself as much as I could.”