Some spoilers ahead…
The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris is one of those books that I picked up because of the buzz, and I expected to enjoy reading it but not become too terribly immersed in the story. It was really surprising, then, when it happened. From the first page, I was fascinated by the story: Who is this person and why does he have this oddball disease? And is it even a real disease? Perhaps he’s faking it. I found myself staying up far too late reading, something usually reserved for thrillers and YA novels, not stories about illness. The pacing, the character development, the narrative structure all lent themselves to easy reading. And the narrative structure is one of the greatest strengths of this story. The structure mimics the mental decline of the protagonist, confusing the reader, confusing the tale, resisting any easy answers. Just like the titular unnamed illness.
The story is devastatingly sad and perhaps that’s where the narrative pull came from. (That and the intense interest in and sympathy for the main characters.) The book calls upon our innermost fears — or my innermost fears, at least — of having an illness that is undiagnosable and untreatable. The mind becomes slave to a sick body. Life revolves around doctors and hospitals and treatments. It’s a prison — and the illness literally becomes an illness for the protagonist, Tim Farnsworth, at one point, as he is chained to a bed his feet moving, constantly moving. The prison exists for his wife too. She isn’t physically sick like her husband but the illness is a force in her life, too. As the illness spirals out of control, their lives do as well.
At first I thought this might have been a commentary on materialism and a workaholic society. There is one point in the novel that points rather directly at this meaning. However, the ending doesn’t let us tie things up as neatly as mere allegory. After I finished, it seemed to me that this is more a story about our fears. What happens when we aren’t in control of our bodies much less our destinies? What happens when we give in to the chaos that swirls around the order we try to impose? Where is the division between body and mind? Between psyche and soma? Between sane and sick?
I like books that make the reader think, that resist the easy answer, that refuse to give us the ending we want. And, oh, there was an ending that I desperately wanted for these characters. But this story, this particular telling of the story, was ultimately more satisfying. It was the ending the book needed rather than the one that would be the easiest to tell.