THE UNNAMED, by Joshua Ferris. Reagan Arthur Books/ Little, Brown, 313 pp., $24.99.
Joshua Ferris' first novel, "Then We Came to the End" (2007), set in a Chicago ad agency reeling from the dot-com bust, showed off a prodigious talent for scintillating black comedy.
His madcap copywriters and art directors don't find much meaning in their work, but they wouldn't know what to do without it. One eye's on the clock, the other on the memo announcing the next layoff. Their gossip, secrets and stunts - narrated by a first-person plural "we" - turn the firm into an absurdist hall of mirrors. A tone of fey understatement disguising deeper torments sometimes explodes into screwball comedy.
Ferris' second novel, "The Unnamed," takes him into far different territory. He's closed up the comedy shop, for sure. No longer putting a pack of office mates under the microscope, he narrows the focus to a middle-aged couple and their teenage daughter.
Tim and Jane Farnsworth live the upscale life in an unidentified New York suburb. After Harvard Law, Tim has climbed the rungs to a partnership at Troyer, Barr in the city. Jane sells real estate, while daughter Becka wallows in adolescent angst.
But Becka isn't the problem. It's Tim's body, which seems to have a mind of its own, forcing him to drop everything he's doing, day or night, and start walking - walking and walking until he collapses with fatigue and falls asleep, ending up in some distant suburb or one of New York's outer boroughs, where Jane must rescue him.
And no one knows why. The Farnsworths have done their due diligence - from Mayo Clinic to Cleveland Clinic to Swiss neurologists to a host of psychiatrists and out-of-the-box healers of every stripe - and still have no answers.
For a while, Tim tries to hide his unnamed malady from his law firm. But, of course, running away in the middle of the day makes that impossible. He's taken off a big case, defending one of the firm's most lucrative clients, who is accused of murdering his wife. Turning the screw in a yet stranger direction, Ferris has a man on the Brooklyn Bridge threaten Tim with a knife and claim to know who the real murderer is.
But "The Unnamed" is not a murder mystery, though Tim's illness is surely savaging both his career and his marriage. He is stripped of his partnership. He ponders suicide. Jane tumbles into alcoholism. As Tim's marriage cools, his relationship with Becka warms, as if in compensation. Still, Jane proves a loyal wife, in spite of Tim's burden.
Inevitably, the disease reduces Tim to a kind of object, or a joke. He looks ridiculous in the bicycle helmet rigged up with electrodes to record his brain waves. In a prestigious medical journal, psychiatrists conclude his condition is physical, while neurologists claim it's psychological. In Tim's bleak self-assessment, he was "anything anyone wanted him to be - a nutcase, a victim, a freak, a mystery."
Eventually, Tim goes on permanent walkabout, phoning his family from time to time, as his journeys take him throughout the American West. He camps out, eats little, falls prey to all manner of physical disabilities. He's the scruffy homeless wanderer muttering to himself by the roadside.
Inside that head, however, philosophical debates rage endlessly. "The soul is the mind is the brain is the body," one voice contends. The soul is a force beyond the strictures of the material world, comes the retort. Is a human being nothing but biology? Is Tim nothing but the sum of his pathology?
Ferris' literary magic transforms his bleak story not only into an intriguing novel of ideas but an existential mystery, an eerie road novel and, in spite of everything, an abiding love story. Haunting and melancholy, furious and tender, "The Unnamed" is written with uncommon grace.
"It was sad to see her father so docile and inexpressive, and so thin," Becka thinks. "Much thinner than he had been when she saw him in Portland. . . . She had had to arrange this meeting, though he chose Tompkins Square Park, where now, under a linden tree swiftly shedding leaves in the wind, he sat, as unremarkable a feature of the city as the park bench. . . . 'Daddy?' she said. He turned to her then, and, in the long seconds that passed before he said it, she believed he had forgotten her name."