Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review: I can't go on, I'll go on

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Samuel Beckett wrote three novels that are now commonly sold together in an omnibus edition, referred to as The Trilogy, as if there were no other trilogies in this world (sorry Star Wars, Back to the Future, and Evil Dead). One of the major concepts behind these works is something between deterioration of story, character, and language, so that the narrative moves from something like a detective plot to an introspective look at the self to what could be described as nothingness. The final Beckett novel in this trilogy - The Unnamable - captures this rambling, stream-of-consciousness perhaps better than Joyce and Woolf.

These novels, which are all too under-read and -appreciated, seem to be exhumed in Joshua Ferris's new work, The Unnamed, a fiction that's title seems like an homage to Beckett's masterwork. There's something more finite in Ferris's work, suggested by the titled, using an adjective/participle. What it's referring to is the protagonist Tim Farnsworth's handicap: an uncontrollable push to meander, walk, and forget. Doctors try to diagnose what's wrong, make him wear a helmet that takes photographs of his brain to see if there's an oddity in his brainwaves, his wife and daughter handcuff him to the bed - his 'sleepwalking' just eludes everyone.

It sounds a bit hokey, and in the beginning it kind of is. Farnsworth, who is a lawyer, can't keep up with his job, his family, or even his own thoughts. Everything around him is spiraling into nothingness. It's a traditional narrative where his family is terribly supportive, willing to quit their jobs or put their personal lives on hold (even if it means forgetting about cancer) in order to assist him; where his colleagues are frustrated with his helmet and backpack he wears around the office and court, making him look like a child; where he himself slowly experiences a breakdown every time he realises that 'it's back!', a phrase he keeps saying to his wife Jane, as grating as it would be in a B-level monster film.

But as the novel progresses, as Farnsworth comes to terms with the fact that he cannot get better from this unnamed problem, the narrative itself deteriorates into mistaken flashbacks, imagined conversations and question/answer sessions, and frightening imaginary figures more like gaunt spectres. And it's here that we realise that Farnsworth's unnamed illness is not pedestrian, but something like the epilepsy in Dostoevsky's novels: a possession that seems to go beyond the physical, one that attempts to eat away at the mental and spiritual. Ferris is channeling something much darker and fearsome than anything in his black comedy début Then We Came to the End.

Farnsworth's wandering is more serious than that of Peter Stillman père/Daniel Quinn in Paul Auster's paean to Upper West Side meandering, City of Glass, for it becomes almost like an ambulatory roadtrip across the country. Farnsworth loses fingers and toes to frostbite and gangrene as we lose hair to age, making him seem like one of Beckett's unfortunate clowns onstage, terribly honest, waddling in trash and misery and noxious bodily scents.

The Unnamed works best when it's most hallucinatory and paranoid, creating more of an existential narrative when it refuses tradition and the organized. The novel evokes the final phrases of Beckett's The Unnamable, 'I can't go on, I'll go on', as everyone's will and patience are tried as Farnsworth's suburban ennui and peripatetic habits take hold fast. And as this happens, the work actually slowly evolves into something more organic, more Beckett-like, honest in its absurdity:
Q: Are you aware that you can be made to forget words, if certain neurons are suppressed from firing?
A: Certain what?
Q: And that by suppressing the firing of others, you can be made to forget what words mean entirely? Like the word Jane, for instance.
A: Which?
Q: And do you know that if I do this--
[inaudible]
A: Oof!
Q: --you will flatline? And if I do this--
[inaudible]
A: Aaa, aaa . . .
Q: --you will cease flatlining? Do you really want to confuse that for God's work?
The narrative is still much more traditional that this quote exemplifies, much more straightforward than Beckett's, perhaps even more conclusive than Auster's work. Its use of husband/wife, father/daughter, colleague/colleague, mentally ill/cancer striken dichotomies are not new and not shown in a different light. (The book itself starts with: 'It was the cruelest winter', which feels like a tired version TS Eliot's The Waste Land - 'April is the cruellest month' - and William Shakespeare's Richard III - 'Now is the winter of our discontent'). But it's still a maturing of Ferris, an attempt to push a little deeper into the canon. It's a welcome bleak refreshment, and certainly a decent sophomore effort.

The Unnamed will be published by Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown on January 18, 2010.

2 comments:

Greg Zimmerman said...

Can...not...wait! Thank you for the fantastic review.

Tarun said...

No one can beat Beckett in absurdity. His absurdities are so deep, its tough to fathom. I dont think anyone can match his writings.

Tarun
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