on a wandering new novel
Joshua Ferris's celebrated first novel
Then We Came to the End
told the collective tale of an office full of gossip-swapping mediocrities as they lose their jobs during the downturn that followed the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000. Narrated in the first person plural, through the "we" of the water-cooler hive mind, the novel captured the banalities of spending one's life writing advertising copy - and the indignities of daily facing the spectre of unemployment. Many of Ferris's running gags fell flat - especially his multiple riffs on office furniture - but enough landed to sustain the novel's near 400 pages.
As if not satisfied merely writing comedy, Ferris broke from the novel's collective voice during a 35-page interlude detailing one character's confrontation with breast cancer. The victim was not just any drone but the boss, Lynn Mason. Unmarried, a partner in the firm in her early forties, she has sacrificed any semblance of a personal life on the altar of her career; she is the corporate manager as martyr. Lynn's maudlin contemplation of her own mortality was incongruous in the midst of the novel's prevailing whimsy. But the author's willingness to confront illness was taken in many quarters as a mark of his Seriousness, a judgment affirmed by the book's nomination for a 2007 National Book Award.
, Ferris's follow-up effort, takes as its premise an illness that strips the novel's hero, Tim Farnsworth, of his free will and compels him at unpredictable moments to walk long distances in random directions in a state of semi-consciousness until he collapses in exhaustion. It is a ridiculous conceit, and Ferris means to use it to explore what happens when a seemingly perfect life is torn apart by a force of motiveless malevolence. The first half of the novel concerns Tim's attempts, with the help of his wife Jane and daughter Becka, to preserve his career as a high-powered Manhattan lawyer. But he keeps walking away from his case - defending a hedge-fund manager on murder charges - only to be found collapsed in a Bronx hair salon, or a Queens fast-food joint, or a Brooklyn cemetery.
Specialists are consulted, as well as gurus, but none have any experience with a condition like Tim's and none offer any effective help. One doctor provides him with a helmet to monitor his brain waves before, during and after each walking fit. The contraption yields no useful data, and after Tim shows up in court wearing it he is stripped of his partnership. With Tim's career on the rocks and his wife taking to drink, the author begins his strain toward profundity. Biblical elements are introduced - wildfires, the mass death of bees - and man and wife express various sub-Jobian thoughts about God. Tim experiences remission, moves with Jane from their suburban McMansion to an apartment in Greenwich Village, and becomes an adjunct law professor at Columbia, as if a more modest lifestyle might prove therapeutic. For four years it does, but the walking mania returns, and he yields to an involuntary cross-country trek.
Here in the novel's last phase, as the author reaches toward an epic scope, the paucity of his imagination fully reveals itself. Ferris's America is essentially an archipelago of outlet malls strung along nondescript highways. TGI Friday's, Starbucks, KFC, Men's Warehouse, McDonald's, WalMart, Mail Boxes Etc - the names of chain stores proliferate in the narrative as if stipulated by a clause in the author's contract. Tim turns back only when Becka informs him (he checks his email at public libraries) that Jane has cancer. Who will die first?
Illness has of late proven an increasingly attractive subject matter for American novelists, who have - in what the critic Marco Roth dubbed a new genre, the "neuronovel" - burdened their characters with a wild array of disorders like Tourette's syndrome, Capgras syndrome, Huntington's disease, autism and paranoid schizophrenia. As a narrative strategy, illness is a means of introducing conflict to fiction without compromising character: no one has to be the villain. Ferris has upped the ante, inventing Tim's absurd, untreatable hyperpedestrianism. But in the end there is nothing very interesting about Tim's condition because it neither has any basis in reality nor reveals anything particular about Tim, his family, or human nature. The Farnsworths are blandly good-natured people, whose defining aspect is their material prosperity. As Tim's walks take him further away from a normal life, mostly they miss each other and feel sorry for themselves. Their emotional resilience is meant to be life-affirming, but as characters they are simply hollow vessels for sympathy.
Another writer, working nearly a century ago, relied on a similarly absurd premise to probe the subtleties of family psychology. His insight was that venality sometimes trumps virtue. Kafka's
ends with the survivors of the Samsa family spending a day in the country, enjoying the sun, making plans to move house, observing daughter Grete's blossoming into marriageability. The future at last looked bright: Gregor the monstrous vermin was finally dead.
Christian Lorentzen is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine.