Joshua Ferris Discusses His New Novel, ‘The Unnamed’

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A man starts to walk. He walks and walks and walks. He can’t stop. It doesn’t matter if it’s cold or if it’s hot, or if he has some place to be. He walks for miles, for hours, for days, until he doesn’t. And then he tries to call his wife before he collapses from exhaustion, on the street, in a graveyard, at a stranger’s doorstep, in the slums of Newark. This condition is the emotionally taxing subject of Joshua Ferris’ second novel, The Unnamed, the follow-up to his bestselling, often-hilarious debut about office life, Then We Came To The End. Readers should be prepared: compelling and gripping, The Unnamed is not a light read. “The condition is unremitting, utterly destructive of [the protagonist] Tim’s life,” Ferris says over a decaf Americano at Brooklyn’s Café Grumpy. “My objective is, first and foremost, that there is something at stake, something very, very serious at stake.”

Ferris, 35, sold the book’s rights to super-producer Scott Rudin when he’d written just 120 pages. “I didn’t know how it was going to end and they didn’t know, either,” he says of the deal. “It was a leap of faith on everybody’s part.” Ferris had almost abandoned the book, before realizing that it just needed a bit of restructuring. “I began with Tim having the disease for the first time,” he says. “Narratively, it was a misstep. I thought it was just a failed novel. But then, when I had four or five months of distance from it, I was in a taxi in Detroit and I pictured Tim walking around that wasteland. I just knew that I needed to start in the middle. It was the key.”

Despite the New York literary scene’s love of Schadenfreude, Ferris is impressively unconcerned about how his sophomore effort will be received. “I hope that I have a readership that understands the book, but I don’t worry about my readership,” he says. “I want to please myself. And I have pleased myself.” Ferris has already begun work on his third novel, despite having an infant son at home. “I don’t procrastinate,” he says. “It sounds like great discipline, but I have more fun writing than when I’m doing anything else. Really it’s just selfish.”

I found reading this book really… Depressing?

Sort of! Brutal. He’s so trapped. It’s hard not to feel empathy for him, almost an unpleasant amount. How empathetic with him were you? I feel an enormous amount of empathy for him. I hope that the reader feels empathy for him. But I don’t think he’s helpless. And I think that’s what is redemptive about his condition. His condition is unremitting, utterly destructive of his life, but it has one redeeming feature—it allows him to return home one final time. To get a little bit more theoretical, one thing I was thinking of when I was writing this was the very famous quote from Camus and the Myth of Sisyphus that ends with him saying, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” I’m not sure that Tim’s happy, but he carries his rock up the hill with a certain determined resignation and attempts as best he can to live a heroic life. So while it’s bleak and unrelenting, I believe that there is something that is redemptive to be found there. It might not suffice. I believe that for quite a few readers it may end up simply defeating them, the book’s unrelentingness may defeat them. And that’s ok. With all due respect to readers, if they give up on a book for its unrelenting quality I think that that’s much more satisfying for a writer than finishing a book and not being moved at all. My objective is first and foremost that there is something at stake, something very, very serious at stake.

Did you intend for Tim’s condition to be allegorical? I think that there are a lot of things that you could say about what his condition is and is not. It certainly lends itself to a lot of interpretation and debate. But I certainly don’t have those answers. It was not my intention to be willfully obscure about the open meaning of the condition, but the early readers have thrown out possibilities and they’ve run the gambit from being highly entertaining to being profoundly thoughtful. Is it fun for you to hear what people make of it? That’s fun. I mean I’ve nearly been sort of strong-armed against the wall to give an answer, but I can’t do that because I just simply don’t have an answer. It would be like asking, to take an analogy from the art world, to ask Jasper Jones, “What does the target meaning? What does the flag mean?” You know, it is a painting, but it’s also a symbol. What’s it a symbol of? Perhaps he has an answer, but perhaps he doesn’t. But it’s not really up to me. And I think that’s another reason why, what is perhaps sad about the book is alleviated because you have the possibility to get creative about what it ultimately means.

Are you anxious about how this book will be received given how successful Then We Came To The End was? I hope that I have a readership that understands the book, but I don’t worry about my readership. Again, with all due respect to readers, I have those readers that I have always had for my entire writing life, and those readers are the ones that I want to please. But I first and foremost want to please myself, and I’ve pleased myself just merely by finishing the book. So ultimately, the book has to do the work as a public artifact, as a released item out in the world, it has to worry about that. you know?

That’s so non-neurotic of you! Well, I’m extremely neurotic about the writing itself, but the selling and the buying of the book, the judging of the book, the book’s place in the world is really not up to me. I did the best I could, and if I could go back I would actually revise the book to include some things that have come to me since I finished. I would change some things, but ultimately I feel like I’ve put my best foot forward, and now a lot of the things that make for the public life of the book are completely out of my control. So to worry about them is only to sort of generate a lot of internal turmoil.

That doesn’t stop most of us. I would probably be worried at some point in time, but I think I have a fairly good handle on it.

Where did the idea, of this man who can’t stop walking, come from? I wish I could tell you. I’ve tried to reconstruct it and I have no memory of it. I remember telling a friend of mine about it, another novelist, and he was excited about the idea because he saw the potential, but I cannot reconstruct the flash of insight that came to me one day and I will never be able to remember. It’s essentially a one word premise, he walks and he can’t stop walking. And it seemed to my friend as rich as it seemed to me. I didn’t know at the time whether or not to pursue it, but I started writing and it felt right.

I read in a previous interview that when you started writing this you walked away from it for a long time because you started in the wrong place. What was the wrong place? I started the book with him having the disease for the first time, so the reader and him discover the condition simultaneously, and narratively it was just a misstep.

Because it’s not really about him discovering what’s wrong. And it’s not really about the walking. You’ve probably noticed, but there’s not a lot of narrated scenes in which you watch him take step after step. A lot of the walking has actually been cut. It would have grown awfully old and long in the tooth if I had narrated every walking scene. I had just not known that intuitively, and needed to find that out through the writing. I probably spent four or five months going in the totally wrong direction. And then I put it down. I couldn’t figure that out immediately, I thought it was just a failed novel. And then I had another four or five months distance from it. And all of a sudden I was in a taxi in Detroit, and I pictured him walking around the wasteland of these parts of Detroit. For some reason I knew that it should start after him having suffered this thing two or three times. So he’s got two or three periods of his life in which this has already happened to him. I came back from Detroit and I just knew that I needed to start in the middle, basically. I still needed to figure out many things, but it was the key to a new beginning and ultimately writing the ending.

You sold the film rights to this book about a year and a half ago? Was it finished? It wasn’t done, no. They must have seen about 120 pages or something like that. I mean I was pleased, but I still didn’t know that they were making a wise move. I didn’t know how it was going to end and they didn’t know how it was going to end either. It was a leap of faith on everybody’s part.

You’re in the middle of writing your third book? I wouldn’t call it the middle. I wish I could call it the middle. I would say that the ship has almost left the port and it still has a lot of ocean. A lot of exploration. This will be a longer book in the making. It will take a little longer.

Will you ever write a book in the first person? Yeah, I hope every book to be different, and I hope to take all the approaches that are available to a writer. I hope to never feel repetitive. And that will require me to use all of the various techniques at a writer’s disposal. The first person is a very daunting one, because—this is to get into a little bit of criticism—what’s happened is that the first person narrator has become so traditionally unreliable, and it’s been done so very, very well that any writer with any serious intent has to try to figure to what extent they want to tackle the question of reliability. And that’s a very daunting thing to consider. So I think that the first person doesn’t necessarily have to be about reliability, but they almost sort of go hand in hand. When you have a first person narrator, and it’s saying “Hi, I’m so-and-so and I’m telling the truth,” the first thing you think of is that he’s lying, and I think you really have to—they go hand in hand.

You’re on an 8-hour work schedule everyday. Do you ever procrastinate, or are you good about not doing that? I don’t procrastinate willingly. I procrastinate when I’m forced to by my family or by some other external cause, but, no, I don’t procrastinate.

So if you go into your room and sit at your desk, and no one calls you, you will work all day? Yeah, and I’ll avoid email for that purpose.

You’re like superman. Well I just like it. I mean it sounds like great discipline, but I’m having more fun than when I’m doing anything else. So it sounds a little oppressive, but really it’s just selfish.

When you do procrastinate, do you feel bad about it? Yeah, if I have not been at the desk for a while I will start to feel withdrawals.

That’s like, I don’t exercise, but I have this fantasy that if I exercised enough there would come a day that not exercising would make me feel really gross. Well that’s actually a really interesting analogy because if you do exercise a lot—I run every other day—your physical and mental constitution starts to change. And you start to start of jones for an exercise, for a run or whatever it may be, because you are not facing the world with the same equanimity that you once did. And that is the same case with writing, because it is a purely mental exercise, but it is calming and restorative. Don’t get me wrong it’s still very, very hard for me. And I still have the same difficulties that every writer has, the same self doubt and the same insecurities. But it’s ultimately where I love to be the most and when I’m doing it, even if it’s a sort of shitty day and nothing will come of it, I know that something will come out of the lack of success of that day. And that is an enormously comforting feeling because I’m being productive, I’m being creative and suddenly I do face the world with a different disposition.

Photo by Billy Kidd, Grooming by Jillian Haluska