Fourteen days into the new decade, tastemakers and hipsters are already buzzing about two groundbreaking artistic sensations that may define the current generation: MTV’s “Jersey Shore” and Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed. What I’m really concerned about is that I’ve sampled both and I like “Jersey Shore” a whole lot better.
Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came To The End, is a lucky writer — his latest novel is being set up as the first hot book of 2010 by the lit-crit establishment, and he’s being increasingly touted as the New Franzen in Town. This surprises me because I only see in Ferris a talented middleweight, a “safe” postmodernist perhaps (but then, didn’t Jonathan Franzen fill the same role?). I get it that The Unnamed‘s cryptic plot (a middle-aged professional husband and father has a strange mental disease and can’t stop walking) is supposed to recall John Cheever’s The Swimmer, but that beautiful short story delivered its koan-like message in a quick punch, while this novel’s opening pages threaten to pull up a chair and stay a long time.
In fact, I couldn’t get past the first several pages of The Unnamed (perhaps this is to Ferris’s credit; I usually can’t get past the first sentence of a Jonathan Lethem novel). I’m immediately put off by the narrative voice — that same heavy, mannered, solemn, snow-is-general-all-over-Ireland opening voice that so often gives novel-writing MFAs a bad name:
It was the cruelest winter. The winds were rabid off the rivers. Ice came down like poisoned darts. Four blizzards in January alone, and the snowbanks froze into gray barricades as grim and impenetrable as anything in war. Tombstones were buried across the cemetery fields and cars parked curbside were swallowed undigested. The long-term debate about changing weather was put aside for immediate concern for the elderly and the shut- ins, while the children went weeks without school. Deliveries came to a halt and the warehouses clogged up on days the planes were approved to land. There were lines at the grocery store, short tempers, a grudging toward the burden of adjustment. Some clever public services addressed the civic concerns — heat shelters, volunteer home checks. The cold was mother of invention, a vengeful mother whose lessons were delivered at the end of a lash.
Do I really have to read this whole pretentious novel, just to be clued-in to the scene in 2010? Spare me. At least “Jersey Shore” makes me laugh.
I do like high-concept psychological novels about modern society, just for the record — Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, for instance, immediately grabbed me, and delivered on its promise. Maybe The Unnamed improves, but the self-serious opening makes it very difficult to stay to find out.
For what it’s worth, here’s the YouTube trailer for the book. I don’t like this either, and the ghosts of Jack Kerouac and Forrest Gump do not appreciate being beckoned.
Anyway, if Joshua Ferris does turn out to be the most influential novelist of the 2010s, I know I’ll have some company over at Bookslut.