Book Review: The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris

Content note: This post contains some discussions of the plot of The Unnamed, with a focus on the disability-related aspects of the story and the reflected social attitudes embedded in how the story is presented. If you are spoiler-averse, you may want to skip this until you have read the book.

I recently finished The Unnamed, a novel revolving around the case of a man with a curious health condition: Periodically, he is filled with a driving compulsion to walk. He can’t stop, not for food or rest or anything else. He walks and walks and walks until he tires and falls asleep. These ‘episodes,’ as the characters refer to them, happen for weeks and months before the character returns to an even keel, until finally he enters this state permanently, criss-crossing the United States on foot until he dies.

There are a number of interesting things about the way this story is presented. From the start, we are reminded that his condition has no name, no description, no documented history in the human population, as referenced by the title. He is examined and analyzed and studied by scores of doctors all over the world, written up in medical journals. The elusiveness of the name of his condition haunts and frustrates him, and a parallel can be seen here with the real world, where some disabilities defy naming and description and this becomes a source of intense frustration to people.

Living with a condition you know, that impacts your life, that you can describe, that you are experiencing, and being unable to name it, is a scary thing. It also has some very serious implications, some of which can be seen in the book. How can you ask for accommodations at work when you don’t know what you have? How can you explain to people that what you are experiencing is real when no one has ever heard of it and no one can pin a neat, tidy title on it? His intense search for a diagnosis takes him to extreme lengths, just as it does for people in the real world.

Yet, there are some disturbing undertones in this book. One point made over and over again is that he firmly believes that the condition is physiological, not mental. He wants an explanation rooted in the way his body functions, blaming his legs for the walking, not his brain. He doesn’t want to be seen as mentally ill and doesn’t want this to be a mental illness. This is a reflection of larger social issues; people fear mental illness in a way they don’t fear physical illness and it’s notable that some patients with conditions with mental and physiological components tend to stress the physiological, not the mental, aspects of their disabilities.

We are reminded throughout the book just as we are in life that people view mental illness as bad and scary and that no one would want to be mentally ill. Our character would not receive a measure of peace knowing that his condition is mental; even though nothing would change about his condition if it was diagnosed as a mental illness, it’s clear that he would feel shamed in a way he wouldn’t if it was physical. This is a reflection of social attitudes, and it’s not necessarily something about his characterisation I am criticising, simply something worth exploring. The book certainly doesn’t present it neutrally or even positively, and certainly doesn’t seem to support the thesis that mental conditions are inferior to physical ones; rather, it explores why the character feels this way, and what kinds of attitudes around him contribute to this.

Another important aspect of the book is his wife’s relationship to him. Throughout the book, we see her waffling between wanting to leave him because he’s sick and wanting to stay with him because he’s sick. She justifies wanting to leave him with arguments about this not being the man she married, about it being too much work, about not being able to live her life. In a sense, she does leave him, turning to alcohol during one of his episodes to numb herself, before returning and trying to rebuild their marriage. I think the book did a good job of also not presenting this neutrally or positively; as a reader, I wasn’t left with a sense that it was acceptable or a good thing to leave disabled partners simply because of their disabilities.

However, The Unnamed dodged a larger conversation about this, and avoided confronting readers, by having him ultimately leave her. This turns the tables, as he literally walks away from the marriage and keeps walking until summoned back by her terminal illness. This was a kind of disappointing direction for the story to take, because I thought the book brought up some important questions about disability, relationships, and society, and then neatly steered around them.

It’s a book with layers of complicated things going on. The story very much revolves around him and his point of view, which is a nice change of pace from books focusing on the caregiver narrative and not the story of the person with disabilities. It did a good job of not presenting the wife as a selfless saint who suffered endlessly by being married to a disabled person, and it also didn’t present him as inspiring, or any number of other disability stereotypes. He just was, and sometimes he did bad things and sometimes good ones, but they were rooted in who he was as a person, not in his disability.

The Unnamed is a book that pushes readers to think about things in some new ways, and to stretch a bit outside their comfort zone. And I believe that’s a good thing.