Tuesday, March 23, 2010
When I was in sixth grade, I read the saddest book ever. I had to read it for school but found myself home sick soon after it was assigned. I read it cover to cover and when it was done I was just in tears. The book? Where the Red Fern Grows. In the book a young man has a pair of hunting dogs who he loves dearly and at the end of the book they die protecting him from a mountain lion. Once I got myself under reasonable control, I went over to my dog West, who was sitting in "his" chair just like he is in the picture below and hugged him and hugged him and hugged him. He seemed really baffled by the whole thing.
Joshua Ferris' book, The Unnamed, invoked similar reactions. Not the baffled part but the whole heartache of seeing a loved one suffer, losing them, not wanting to be apart from them. Even so far as spending time with someone important to you and then having that time end. It's a lesser heartache but one nonetheless.
The Unnamed starts off gripping you right from the beginning. You know something is up but you're not sure what. There's a couple, good-looking successful New Yorkers with a teenage daughter. The husband is a partner in a law firm, the wife a realtor. The marriage is solid, the husband loves his work and is compensated well for it. All seems pretty good.
The "dark secret", though, is that the husband suffers from this mysterious affliction which comes and goes. When it strikes, his legs start moving and he is compelled to walk. He never knows where and he has no control of it. He just walks and walks until fatigue sets in and he passes out. He managed to hide earlier attacks from his co-workers by playing off absences as him taking care of his wife during her fight with cancer. When the attacks come this time, they are more severe and it gradually affects his life in a big way.
No one is able to determine the cause of the affliction or even if it is physical or psychological. The majority of the first half of the book is spent with the couple trying to cope with it. Ferris does a great job of capturing the frustration. The husband, Tim, fights to be viewed as normal and lead his regular life despite the condition. The wife, Jane, forced to try to care for the one she loves but who is never there to be cared for because the affliction makes him roam far and wide has to also cope with raising the daughter, the temptation of other "healthy" men and her desire to have something resembling a normal life, too.
The disorder goes into remission around the middle of the book. The book could pretty well end there and it would be a nice story. Another bout arrives and it becomes apparent that this is a book without a happy ending. This with a hundred pages to go.
I think this is the best testament to how good a writer Ferris is. I enjoyed his first novel, Then We Came to the End. It was sort of Office Space or Dilbert in a much darker style. A one-star book which is never a bad thing for a first novel. This is two-star because despite it being apparent that no good can come from this, that there is a long way to go, you're caught up in it. You're compelled to finish it knowing that there is little hope.
It's a bit metaphoric in that sense. Life's tragedies are very much the same way. You may know that no good can come from something but you're bound to continue. Maybe because of that sense is why I kept going. I've known heartache but life goes on despite of it. Loved ones die, relationships end, tomorrow still comes. Maybe there is a glimmer of hope and maybe somewhere I held out hope that there was a glimmer for Tim and Jane (I thought it was apparent that there was none but maybe my subconscious felt otherwise).
Despite it not having a "happy" ending. It is a thought-provoking ending that makes you think about the body, mind and soul and how they are all intertwined.
This was an incredible book. Scoping out the reviews on Amazon, I see that, not surprisingly, people are not in agreement with me. Some seem put out by the lack of a happy ending. Some thought the book repetitive. I couldn't put it down and was willing to set aside a Michael Chabon book to finish it. I definitely recommend it.