Category: Joshua Ferris

book review – The Unnamed – Joshua Ferris

“She had followed him from the courthouse steps across the Brooklyn Bridge. He shied his suit coat and his buttondown in the heat without stopping, without the least concern for how he looked to those he passed: a crazy man possessed. She picked up his discarded clothes and followed him into the heart of the borough. She trailed behind him, ready to seize on his first false move, at any subtle sign of fakery, but he never halted, he never paused. The city was a wading pool of cement heat. The buildings bleating with glare, the sidewalks pulsing with sunlight. The bus exhaust and then interminable miles made the long walk unbearable. But he never stopped. She watched him slog inside the KFC and collapse.
Now she looked at him with tears in her eyes. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t believe you,’ she said.”

Perhaps this is how American literature, post 9/11 and against a backdrop of an ongoing war on terror, is going to feel with a sense of disorientation and uncertainty at the heart of stories flowing from the pens of the likes of De Lillo, Roth, Safran Foer and of course Ferris.

Tim Farnsworth is a successful lawyer who lives in a house with 8 beds but just one wife and an overweight largely ignored daughter. He is selfish, self obsessed but on the face of it he is living the American dream but of course that’s just on the face of it. Underneath Tim has a problem that no one seems to be able to fully understand from either a mental or a physical angle – his legs start moving and he has no control over them and cannot stop walking. He gets up in the middle of the night and then in the daytime and starts walking miles and miles until he collapses and sleeps. His wife Jane waits for the call to come and collect him from park benches, under bridges and the more than occasional police station.

As time goes on and the bouts of walking ebb and flow then return permanently he walks out not just on his job and his home but finally walks out on his wife, daughter and his sanity.

You never quite know why he is walking he has sought the medical advice of experts all over the world, Money is no object and he ploughs thousands into treatments but no one has a name for his condition and as a result he has to hide it from colleagues and all but his wife and daughter. The strain it puts on the family increases each time he has a bout of the walking condition.

The same sense of bottled despair that comes across in De Lillo’s The Falling Man is on display here as you follow Tim as he pushes everything to one side in order to concentrate on battling his demons. His grief is a very personal one and he cannot explain to those around him why he has to deal with it alone and in the way he chooses. He causes hurt, heartbreak, frustration but not too much anger. In many way’s the anger fails to appear because Tim is a victim just as much as those around him. No one really understands what is going on. This is an age of widespread uncertainty.

The experience of reading The Unnamed is nowhere near as difficult as you expect when you first pick up the book and start to get to grips with the subject. Just as with Then We Came to The End there is a humour here mixed in with raw pain and Ferris deliberately mixes up the pace. In Then We Came… he broke up the flow of the redundancy hit advertising office with the story of the boss and her battle against cancer. Here the pace is inverted with the story chugging along fairly steadily until Tim breaks free of the shackles and conventions of trying to live normally and keep a job going and starts to have a a full blown mental breakdown. Instead of it being a period for calm and reflection this is instead a section of the book that speeds the action up and delivers despair and the brutal effects of the illness in graphic detail.

Strange things are happening, almost like the biblical plagues with bees in their hundreds dead in the park and the birds dropping dead from the sky. This is a time of bleak portents with storms and tornado’s coming when they are out of season. People who appear to be normal and in control slid into alcoholism, develop sexual quirks that wind up in courtrooms and behind the suits and ties most share the same uncertainty felt by Tim

“What is the rational explanation for the bees, Tim? The blackbirds? The fires? The floods? Do these things happen by accident, too?”

What drives Tim is never really made clear but he is a man wandering a country that doesn’t seem to understand anything other than success. As the story unfolds a rich man is framed for the murder of his wife, the head of a law firm rejects the company of his own children to chase the dollar and the ill and strange are feared. As Tim finds when he crosses the barrier of respectability those who are homeless and different are the unnamed and treated differently. They are almost invisible to the successful as Tim finds when he comes across an old partner at the law firm years after his walking took over completely and when he meets the law on his travels.

“The cop looked at him. ‘You got some place to go, wise guy?’
With a crude and mechanical deliberation he opened the wallet in his lap and removed a crisp sheaf of newly minted hundred-dollar bills and made their edges flop between his fingers. ‘I can go anywhere I want.’
‘Then get there,’ said the cop.
‘Your concern for my well-being is touching.’
The cop started to walk away.
‘One might as well as if the State, to avoid public unease, could incarcerate all who are physically unattractive or socially eccentric,’ he called out.”

Ferris is writing about a country that has been walking into war and away from peace ever since the twin towers came down and often without knowing quite why it is doing so. As it marched into Iraq then Afghanistan was it doing so in the same automatic way that Tim Farnsworth strode down the highways? Maybe that is too literal a metaphor but it is the one that will stick in the mind. What drives America? It is an unnamed fear and anger stemming from an event that is still almost impossible to comprehend.

Two books in is Ferris “the great man of American letters” the cover lines make him out to be? Perhaps the field is opening with Updike, who’s Rabbit Run echoes through this book, sadly gone and other big names reaching the end the next generation is standing up and is clearly there to be counted.

What keeps you reading a book that at moments is very close to tipping over the edge of the unbelievable is the characterisation. You do want to know what happens to Tim, his wife Jane and their relationship. making you care about that, just like he made you care about a bunch of people in a Chicago ad agency is his great skill.

book review – Then We Came to the End


The weird thing about the timing of reading this book, that has its comic moments but is more than just a straight comedy by Joshua Ferris, is how I came to read it.

This was one of the tope ten books of last year according to quite a few authorative sources, including the New York Times Book Review and my boss also recommended it to me. That was the strangest thing of all because this is largely a story of us and them and of course my boss is one of ‘’them’ so for a good deal of the time I tried to work out who he would identify with in the story. The second set of circumstances that made an odd backdrop was turning up to work finding out that there were some redundancies.

The way most people would attempt to summarise this book is to describe it as a comedy dealing with the difficult issue of redundancies with a collection of characters that have been used to draw out the different possible reactions. So you get someone in complete denial, the revenge taker who comes back to haunt those that did him wrong and numerous other cases of people vainly fighting the inevitable as they put their personal belongings into a box.

It could have very much gone into an us and them situation with the boss and her stooge being painted out to be the villains of the piece. But Ferris is clever here because he gives both Lynn the boss and Joe Pope depth that reveals how lonely and scared the former is of dying of cancer and how the second is scared of being in a group because of something that happened in his youth.

At the end the years have gone by and the main characters meet up at a book reading by someone reading out something closely resembling Ferris’s own text. They go to a bar and remember the old times – what everyone always does with old colleagues – before going their separate ways ending the ‘we’ that has been maintained throughout the book.

There has to be a comment about the style. The story works because it is fuelled by humour but it is also real and keeps you wanting to find out much in the same way a soap opera unfolds.

But the style is something that is thought through and maintained creating a feeling that most of the time you as the reader feel part of the group. You identify with those that are scheming and plotting to protect themselves from the corporate axe. You feel that you would be with the workers rather than the bosses and at the end there is a hint that the reader has been there for the whole journey sitting alongside the narrator.

This is enjoyable, sadly now something that is of its time again as redundancies sweep through the corporate world. But it shows that there is life both inside and outside the office and the importance of friendships, love and even anger. Without those emotions this story would lack its ability to make you laugh and then cry within the space of just a few paragraphs. This is a story about something with all know, about people we can all lay over the characters and for those that work in a job they spend most of their time hating or trying to avoid this is a book about us.

Version read – Penguin paperback

book review – Then We Came to the End


The weird thing about the timing of reading this book, that has its comic moments but is more than just a straight comedy by Joshua Ferris, is how I came to read it.

This was one of the tope ten books of last year according to quite a few authorative sources, including the New York Times Book Review and my boss also recommended it to me. That was the strangest thing of all because this is largely a story of us and them and of course my boss is one of ‘’them’ so for a good deal of the time I tried to work out who he would identify with in the story. The second set of circumstances that made an odd backdrop was turning up to work finding out that there were some redundancies.

The way most people would attempt to summarise this book is to describe it as a comedy dealing with the difficult issue of redundancies with a collection of characters that have been used to draw out the different possible reactions. So you get someone in complete denial, the revenge taker who comes back to haunt those that did him wrong and numerous other cases of people vainly fighting the inevitable as they put their personal belongings into a box.

It could have very much gone into an us and them situation with the boss and her stooge being painted out to be the villains of the piece. But Ferris is clever here because he gives both Lynn the boss and Joe Pope depth that reveals how lonely and scared the former is of dying of cancer and how the second is scared of being in a group because of something that happened in his youth.

At the end the years have gone by and the main characters meet up at a book reading by someone reading out something closely resembling Ferris’s own text. They go to a bar and remember the old times – what everyone always does with old colleagues – before going their separate ways ending the ‘we’ that has been maintained throughout the book.

There has to be a comment about the style. The story works because it is fuelled by humour but it is also real and keeps you wanting to find out much in the same way a soap opera unfolds.

But the style is something that is thought through and maintained creating a feeling that most of the time you as the reader feel part of the group. You identify with those that are scheming and plotting to protect themselves from the corporate axe. You feel that you would be with the workers rather than the bosses and at the end there is a hint that the reader has been there for the whole journey sitting alongside the narrator.

This is enjoyable, sadly now something that is of its time again as redundancies sweep through the corporate world. But it shows that there is life both inside and outside the office and the importance of friendships, love and even anger. Without those emotions this story would lack its ability to make you laugh and then cry within the space of just a few paragraphs. This is a story about something with all know, about people we can all lay over the characters and for those that work in a job they spend most of their time hating or trying to avoid this is a book about us.

Version read – Penguin paperback

book review – Then We Came to the End


The weird thing about the timing of reading this book, that has its comic moments but is more than just a straight comedy by Joshua Ferris, is how I came to read it.

This was one of the tope ten books of last year according to quite a few authorative sources, including the New York Times Book Review and my boss also recommended it to me. That was the strangest thing of all because this is largely a story of us and them and of course my boss is one of ‘’them’ so for a good deal of the time I tried to work out who he would identify with in the story. The second set of circumstances that made an odd backdrop was turning up to work finding out that there were some redundancies.

The way most people would attempt to summarise this book is to describe it as a comedy dealing with the difficult issue of redundancies with a collection of characters that have been used to draw out the different possible reactions. So you get someone in complete denial, the revenge taker who comes back to haunt those that did him wrong and numerous other cases of people vainly fighting the inevitable as they put their personal belongings into a box.

It could have very much gone into an us and them situation with the boss and her stooge being painted out to be the villains of the piece. But Ferris is clever here because he gives both Lynn the boss and Joe Pope depth that reveals how lonely and scared the former is of dying of cancer and how the second is scared of being in a group because of something that happened in his youth.

At the end the years have gone by and the main characters meet up at a book reading by someone reading out something closely resembling Ferris’s own text. They go to a bar and remember the old times – what everyone always does with old colleagues – before going their separate ways ending the ‘we’ that has been maintained throughout the book.

There has to be a comment about the style. The story works because it is fuelled by humour but it is also real and keeps you wanting to find out much in the same way a soap opera unfolds.

But the style is something that is thought through and maintained creating a feeling that most of the time you as the reader feel part of the group. You identify with those that are scheming and plotting to protect themselves from the corporate axe. You feel that you would be with the workers rather than the bosses and at the end there is a hint that the reader has been there for the whole journey sitting alongside the narrator.

This is enjoyable, sadly now something that is of its time again as redundancies sweep through the corporate world. But it shows that there is life both inside and outside the office and the importance of friendships, love and even anger. Without those emotions this story would lack its ability to make you laugh and then cry within the space of just a few paragraphs. This is a story about something with all know, about people we can all lay over the characters and for those that work in a job they spend most of their time hating or trying to avoid this is a book about us.

Version read – Penguin paperback

Then We Came to the End – post III

The final section of the book was the one that was most able to bring tears to your eyes of both laughter and sadness.

After wondering for weeks if Tom Mota will return to the office he comes back in fantastic style wreaking havoc before being arrested. His appearance dressed as a paint ball gun toting clown puts the lives of the rest of the office workers into stark relief.

In the moments before they expect to die a fair few of the characters have moments of piercing clarity where they decide not only what is valuable to them but which direction their lives should go in. Among them is Mota himself who is able to slay his dragons with the clown attack.

Following his reapparance and arrest the pace speeds up and the remaining members of the ‘we’ are laid off. And then time passes and it moves into reminiscing mode.

What is interesting about the whole process is how believable it feels but at the same time how detached you feel reading it. The idea of being laid off does not fill you with dread and by the end is almost an inevitability.

The meeting of the characters to hear a reading by one of their previous workgroup provides a chance to tie up the loose ends and bring the narrative to the present. The book comes to a close with the question about the narrator being left unsolved and the reader feeling that they are sitting next to the voice in the car waiting to drive off into the future.

A review will follow soon…

Then We Came to the End – post III

The final section of the book was the one that was most able to bring tears to your eyes of both laughter and sadness.

After wondering for weeks if Tom Mota will return to the office he comes back in fantastic style wreaking havoc before being arrested. His appearance dressed as a paint ball gun toting clown puts the lives of the rest of the office workers into stark relief.

In the moments before they expect to die a fair few of the characters have moments of piercing clarity where they decide not only what is valuable to them but which direction their lives should go in. Among them is Mota himself who is able to slay his dragons with the clown attack.

Following his reapparance and arrest the pace speeds up and the remaining members of the ‘we’ are laid off. And then time passes and it moves into reminiscing mode.

What is interesting about the whole process is how believable it feels but at the same time how detached you feel reading it. The idea of being laid off does not fill you with dread and by the end is almost an inevitability.

The meeting of the characters to hear a reading by one of their previous workgroup provides a chance to tie up the loose ends and bring the narrative to the present. The book comes to a close with the question about the narrator being left unsolved and the reader feeling that they are sitting next to the voice in the car waiting to drive off into the future.

A review will follow soon…

Then We Came to the End – post II

If the first part of the book is about the different characters in the office and the pain of redundancy then the second part is about Lynn. This is a clever twist because introducing the vulnerability of a boss who is scared of hospitals and suffering from cancer stops you from demonising her.

Without this human side, and it need not have been cancer, you could go through the novel with a hate figures set up to take the blame for all the negative things that happen to the rest of the characters. Not only is Lynn not personally responsible for the downturn leading to redundancies but of course she is not able to cope with the disease that is spreading through her body.

Her loneliness, which is graphically displayed with her decision to sit outside her boyfriend’s office wondering whether or not she should go in, makes her three-dimensional. Ferris is making the point that we are all people and all likely to be victims in different ways of office life.

For Lynn the fear of hospitals and perhaps of knowing the worse means that she will come into the office and hide away on the very day she is meant to have an operation to remove her breasts.

It might be described as a comedy on the blurb on the dust jacket but this is something hitting a different note.

More tomorrow…