The Unnamed

When death is distant and life is taken for granted, our culture forgets God, focusing instead on bitching and kvetching. This predicament was the subject of Joshua Ferris's first novel, Then We Came to the End, an office comedy that asked what is of ultimate value in our highly bureaucratised lives. Now Ferris's second novel, The Unnamed, imagines a man forced from a world in which even the soap exudes complacency, into proximity with death. God bares his teeth.

The writer and thinker John Gray has described an experiment which shows that “the electrical impulse that initiates action occurs half a second before we take the conscious decision to act". The ramifications for our belief in human agency are unsettling, to say the least. Reading The Unnamed has a similar effect.

The protagonist, Tim Farnsworth, is driven to walk - away from food, drink, shelter, family and his legal career. He can choose neither the direction he walks in, nor how long he will keep going. When he stops, he collapses into narcolepsy, and awakes to frostbite or attempted rape. The Farnsworths do their best to adapt, but Tim's condition is too persistent. The sources of his consolation dry up.

His condition is the "unnamed" of the title, a character in its own right that, in one tortured stretch, finds its own voice. It is important for Tim to know if the disorder is physical or mental, but nobody can tell him, not even after he starts to wear an impulse-recording helmet to work. The unnamed eludes scientific categorisation. Like God, it just is.

Tim's chronic nomadism at first seems to be a metaphor for addiction. The book brims over with obsessive-compulsive TV-watching, drinking and working. Becka, Tim's obese daughter, eats. An emphysema sufferer removes his oxygen mask to draw on a cigarette.

Then the novel grows into something bigger, touching on an old but inescapable theme: the alienation of body from consciousness. It's more bitter than funny, although there is some black, Chaplinesque comedy as Tim walks out of a crucial meeting with his most valued client. At times his predicament is so rawly expressed that he is driven mad, his voice split in two: Tim becomes "we" to himself. To the narrator, he is "they".

But usually he is focused on the meaning of the daily struggle. Are we souls? Is there more to us than crackling compulsion? What is the meaning of the tyranny of motion, our inability ever to arrive at a final destination?

All this, too, is the unnamed. As it depletes us, what remains? For Tim, after his battle with God, there is only a bleak, godless mystery - a "death-sealed ignorance, and the indifference to that ignorance by any power higher than man".

In Ferris's hands, the great, free-floating metaphor of Tim's condition acquires an almost mythic force. His walking is akin to waking up in a cockroach's body, or travelling down a dark river - something immediately recog­nisable yet wholly irreducible. One American review of the novel expressed irritation with the amorphousness of Ferris's symbolism, not realising that such metaphors must remain unnamed in order to retain their power.

Tim walks in all weathers. There are floods, fires and mysterious piles of dead bees. The Unnamed is a grand American novel by virtue of its continental wanderings through deserts and tundra, hospitals, motels and old car lots. Like Ferris's first book, it comments surely and subtly on contemporary American realities. Right from the snowbanks of the first page, "as grim and impenetrable as anything in war", the imagery of conflict is relentless. Tim's war is "the one we've been fighting for centuries. The one we've always lost, so far as anyone can tell."

Despite its metaphorical heart, The Unnamed is more lifelike than most novels. What appear to be prefigurations in a crime subplot never tie up, for this is a world in which mysteries are never solved and innocent men kill themselves in prison. What saves the story from confusion, and makes it immensely readable, is Ferris's skilled exploitation of the reader's dark joy in watching Tim - with whom we identify - disintegrate.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of "The Road from Damascus" (Penguin, £8.99)

The Unnamed
Joshua Ferris
Viking, 320pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum