Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Unnamed - a book you can care about

On Marathon day, a book about endurance...

The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris (Viking, 2010). A New York lawyer struggles with an unexplained affliction – the inability to stop walking. It slowly starts to ruin his life, and leaves him in the middle of a battle between his body and his will. The course he takes leads him to question what it is to be a human being, and leads his family to question what it is to be his wife/daughter.
Making people care about stuff is a big talent. I think it’s because there’s no such thing as a blank slate. Give me someone with nothing inside them, an entirely open persona without any prejudices or other distractions, and I think it’d be fairly easy to get them interested in pretty much anything.
But those people don’t exist. Every reader, every watcher, every listener comes to every book, every TV show, every song with an existing life’s worth of thoughts. We’re a pretty congested race. So to get us to care about something, you’ve got to raise it above the din of everything else. Make it more real. Make it a cause or a case or a fate that touches you in a way that dims everything else, for a few moments at least.
That’s why I think I like Joshua Ferris. This is the second book of his I’ve read. The first had a pretty light hearted setting (a struggling ad agency staffed with big personalities) and had a good deal of wit. This book is very different. There are few characters, and the most prominent ones are fairly unremarkable in most ways.
But that’s OK. Because Ferris takes a single quirk (namely, an unexplained condition that forces the central figure to go on epic walks against his will) and uses it to explore every inch of humanity in his characters.
He uses the quirk to explore what it is to be human. He asks one big question – are we more than the sum of our parts, do we have souls or is it all just electrical impulses in our brains – and he does it without grandiosity, without showboating, within a very human and personal context.
He focuses on this theme tenaciously, but he avoids becoming repetitive. Don’t ask me how. I really don’t know. Maybe because he’s really quite a good writer.
And he does all of this in a way that makes you care. That was the biggest impression that stuck with me when I picked this book up and when I put it down again. I really and truly cared about the relationships he maps out, and the people he created. There are some fairly abstract sections in here, some bizarre details. But it all feels real. He’s inserted a strange plot into a very believable narrative.
And let’s face it, that’s what he’s done. He’s sat down and he’s made all this up. That’s the problem with caring about fiction. It’s all just made up, and Joshua Ferris tricked me into investing emotionally in it all.
That’s probably why I’ll pick up the next book Joshua Ferris writes. Because he creates real people and he poses them massive questions. He creates someone you can care about, then puts them in an unreal position. The overall effect leaves you a little exhausted, but satisfied that you’ve just read a very good book.
Not quite the 9 GBR un-put-downable quality of I, Lucifer, but pretty darn good nonetheless.
A couple of high scores in a row. Things are looking up. Might have to read something rubbish next, just so you don’t think I’m too much of an easy touch.

p.s. Good luck to all on the marathon today, especially Jim and Amy. You guys rule.


Anonymous said...

Just finished this book after you lent it to me. If I was giving out scores, this would be pushing 10. I can remember a book making me want to cry as much as this one, or appreciate my life and family as much.

The relationship between Tim and Jane is amazing, and what they both endure to be there when the other needs them is inspiring.

If this blog does nothing else but get a few people to read a few books like this you should be pretty proud Of yourself.


You big brother.

Ps. I'll give your book back the next time I see you. Peace out.

Gav Collins said...

Thanks, really glad you enjoyed it. More to the point, it's reassuring you liked the same thing I did about it - that it made you care a huge amount about rather ordinary characters.

Seems this is working both ways. I'm reading stuff I never would have picked up before because people are asking me to blog about it, and you guys are reading new stuff on the back of the posts. Everyone wins!