It may seem counterintuitive to claim that a writer as abundantly praised and rewarded as Joshua Ferris has been misunderstood and even ill-served by reviewers. Ferris’ first novel, Then We Came To The End (2007), was immediately heralded in the New Yorker (“A masterwork of pitch and tone”), was a finalist for the National Book Award, and by the graded-on-a-curve standards applied to literary fiction, was a rousing commercial success. His two subsequent novels, The Unnamed (2010) and To Rise Again At A Decent Hour (2014), have also received mostly positive reviews (To Rise Again is a finalist for the Man Booker Prize) and have sold well. He has been interviewed and handsomely photographed at the website of the luxury retailer, Mr. Porter, by Interview, and by Vanity Fair. He is not yet 40 years old. Even amid the laurels, however, there has been a degree of interpretive failure, a misunderstanding of the kind of writer Ferris is and of the large scale of his ambition.
Ferris set out from the UC-Irvine MFA program (whose other alumni include Richard Ford and Michael Chabon) in 2003 with at least three major advantages over most young writers on the make. First, and most obviously, he has very unusual linguistic ability, a quality necessary but generally not sufficient to distinction; he is a gifted literary “athlete.” Second, while others dither, Ferris seems to have a strong conviction in the potency of the novel as a genre, one capable of accommodating both the largest philosophical concerns and close, the-way-we-live-now observation under the same roof; possessing that conviction, Ferris by all accounts works very hard at his writing. Finally, Ferris has a strong sense of his subject matter, or rather, several interrelated matters: the very large place of business in American life; the role of technology, particularly in its more pernicious effects; and the social isolation and loss of a sense of the commonweal that have been among the byproducts of our digital abundance. He is not the only name-brand writer working this patch of ground; Don DeLillo is an obvious forebear, as Ferris has noted in interviews, but Ferris is less wised-up than DeLillo, more willing to risk sentimentality. For DeLillo, there is no escape from the prison-house of modern life; Ferris is still trying all the doors.
Ferris makes a strong demand upon his readers, but that demand is not principally syntactic. He is not a particularly ambitious prose stylist, though he is a very precise and controlled one. He is not generally given to lyricism or otherwise heightened language. He abjures “fine writing” in the usual sense, merging his syntax entirely with his narrative aims. He is therefore not particularly quotable, but he does cultivate a certain strangeness, a tendency to wrong foot the reader through the sudden introduction of a grotesque or perverse element. Like Jonathan Franzen, he has a strong prescriptivist streak about which it does not occur to him to be embarrassed. He uses humor to leaven what gradually emerges as a rather severe Emersonian message about the state of the American soul in the consumer age. He really does want you to put away your iPhone—no kidding.
The lives of office workers seem to lend themselves more easily to comedy than to drama, perhaps because so little is at stake. Ferris starts with the comedy in his first novel, Then We Came To The End, set in a mid-sized Chicago advertising agency that is rapidly circling the drain. The agency’s employees are slowly driven to the brink of madness by serial rounds of layoffs. Confronted with the possibility that they will be ejected from the middle class, they become selfish and scheming, almost feral in their desire to cling to an office identity that they probably never consciously sought but that they now suspect they would suffer hideously without. Ferris wrings his laughs from his cubicle-dwellers’ fear of their bosses and their livid hatred of one another.
Ferris’s advertising “creatives” are funny and pathetic because of their helplessness, not in the sense of their being victims but rather of their being unable to escape themselves. Moment by moment, they confess their pettiness and self-regard.
How we hated our coffee mugs! our mouse pads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, the contents of our desk drawers. Even the photos of our loved ones taped to our computer monitors for uplift and support turned into cloying reminders of time served. But when we got a new office, a bigger office, and we brought everything with us into our new office, how we loved everything all over again, and thought hard about where to place things, and looked with satisfaction at the end of the day at how well our old things looked in this new, improved, important space. There was no doubt in our minds just then that we had made all the right decisions, whereas most days we were men and women of two minds. Everywhere you looked, in the hallways and bathrooms, the coffee bar and cafeteria, the lobbies and the print stations, there we were with our two minds.
There seemed to be only one electric pencil sharpener in the whole damn place.
Comedy is the first dominant note, but comedy’s pressure on personality creates fissures through which notes of stasis and despair soon begin to appear. An older worker dies, leaving behind in his colleagues vaguely valedictory feelings but little in the way of specific recollections. One terminated employee continues to sneak into the office to work on his resume. Another unravels spectacularly, seeming to threaten violence against those who remain. This latter character serves roughly the same narrative function as John Givings in Revolutionary Road (a novel Ferris admires), the madman who is also a purveyor of uncomfortable truths about the way the others live. The news is not good.
It would not be quite accurate to say that Ferris belongs, with Vonnegut or Heller, to the black comedy genre. In those writers, the comic and the tragic sensibilities have fused into a single characteristic tone. This may be why Vonnegut and Heller wear on some readers; they play the same chord over and over, albeit with brilliant variations. In Ferris, by contrast, the comic and the tragic are competing motifs, locked in internecine conflict. Sometimes they negotiate an uneasy peace, and coexist rancorously for a few pages like Balkan neighbors. But that peace is not an equilibrium, and in Ferris, the tragic finally triumphs.
Then We Came is partly a triumph of technique. It is an extraordinarily disciplined piece of fiction for a writer so young. The creation of any novel involves the construction of limits, experiential, expressive, and syntactic; a novelist seeks islands of refuge within the vast sea of experience. In his first novel, Ferris dwells upon a very small island indeed. The principal limitation he imposes on himself is the use of the first person plural, which he departs from only in a crucial middle section (which Ferris has called “the heart of the novel”) rendered from the point of view of a woman facing breast cancer surgery alone, rifling through her inner resources like a burglar. What she finds there is: not much.
The use of “we” creates a fascinating tension in a novel whose principal theme seems to be the trap of corporate identity. Work relationships for Ferris have a certain urgency, but they are not real. We know they are not real because they do not survive an employee’s departure from the business; it is therefore the corporation that has decided they should end.
Ferris is very much concerned with how we come to have a self, or sadly fail to do so, and his conception of the self is finally rather traditional. In his work, the near at hand and the authentic rarely coincide. Being a person rather than a nexus of consumer messages is hard work, and there is risk involved, and probably a good deal of reading. Digital culture is one of his subjects, but Ferris is analog all the way.
The lukewarm reception afforded Ferris’s second novel, The Unnamed, may one day be regarded with puzzlement. Like Sandy Bates, the alienated filmmaker in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories whose fans love his “early, funny” movies best, Ferris made the unforgivable error of setting up expectations with Then We Came that he then declined to fulfill in his subsequent work. The Unnamed asks a great deal of its readers—asks them, in effect, to suffer alongside its central character, Tim Farnsworth—and some critics seemed to find such a demand impertinent coming from a writer whom they thought of as acidly comic, a Ricky Gervais of the printed word. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that despite the basic comic mode of Then We Came, Ferris is a very self-serious young novelist. That novel’s dark subtext was not well apprehended even by reviewers who raved about the book, and this partial interpretive failure as to Ferris’s first novel created the conditions for a more comprehensive failure as to his second.
Tim Farnsworth is a hard-charging Manhattan corporate litigator, a handsome, overworked middle-aged man whose identity is tied to the profession at which he excels and that he seems to find almost embarrassingly gratifying. He is happily married, and he wishes to be a good husband and father using what little of his time his legal practice leaves him. And then one day, carried by an impulse he neither understands nor can control, he walks out of his office, leaving behind an important client. He is a case for the medical journals, the victim of an idiopathic illness, which is to say one that puzzles even the most expensive specialists. He is fitted for a helmet intended to isolate his neurological disturbance (it does not). His illness abates and then recurs, and each time the compulsion is more ungovernable. He loses his law practice, and then his home; he becomes a vagabond with an American Express card, walking for days until he falls into fathomless sleep, frequently dirty, sometimes incoherent, making a hobo’s tour of America. His wife, Jane, keeps the phone under her pillow, drives the Mercedes through the night to retrieve him when he calls, exhorts him to carry on. Gradually he is driven from the family of man almost entirely; he loses his fingers to frostbite, his sanity to the shock of his circumstances. Finally, he seems to give up entirely. His wife and daughter are left to go on without him. More than this cannot be said, except that they are eventually reunited, albeit only briefly.
Tim and Jane Farnsworth continue to cling to each other long past the point when reason, not to mention the intensity of their suffering, should have pulled them apart. They have the kind of us-against-the-world marriage that all of us want but almost no one actually has. This in spite of the fact that Jane is generally quite clear-eyed about her husband, even in health, and realistic about what his progressive illness means for their chances of recapturing the charmed life they once knew.
Was she up for this? She lay in bed under the covers, her breath visible in the slant moonlight. Really up for it? The long matrimonial haul was accomplished in cycles. One cycle of bad breath, one cycle of renewed desire, a third cycle of breakdown and small avoidances, still another of plays and dinners that spurred a conversation between them late at night that reminded her of their like minds and the pleasure they took in each other’s talk. And then back to hating him for not taking out the garbage on Wednesday. That was the struggle. Sickness and death, caretaking, the martyrdom of matrimony—that was fluff stuff. When the vows kick in, you don’t even blink. You just do. She had to be up for it.
Jane Farnsworth seems at first to be a type, someone we might see coming out of Lincoln Center in a gown, the lady of a certain age, who knows how to wear jewelry: the elegant wife of one of the princes of Manhattan’s corporate and professional world. In some ways, Jane plays to type. When Tim loses his partnership, Jane gets her real estate license and starts selling co-ops: the expected career for an expensively educated woman without meaningful work experience. And she goes through a period of drinking too much white wine, which is even the expected brand of alcoholism for her socioeconomic status. But Jane is both smarter and less complacent than one might expect, and she turns out to have unexpected inner resources. She keeps alive a memory of her life with Tim that has nothing to do with the gown or the Mercedes. It turns out that in addition to expounding the aridities of professional life, The Unnamed is also, improbably, a love story.
The Unnamed is daring in its reliance on a book-length metaphor, that of Tim Farnsworth’s unexplained illness, that must be left somewhat indeterminate. The readily available interpretation is that Tim’s walking compulsion has a spiritual rather than physical etiology. Like the female executive in Then We Came, he is outwardly successful but inwardly incomplete. In the service of his law career, he has forsaken his irreducible human complexity and come to think of himself only as a warrior. By thus betraying his own nature, he has become a stranger to his family and to some degree to himself. And finally his spirit has rebelled, asserting itself through the body because that is the only strategy it has left. This account is too neat in many respects, but there does not seem to be much question that we are meant to connect Tim’s motor compulsion to a suppressed inner turmoil.
But Tim’s suffering is also something of a mystery, a Job-like afflicting of a man who has been to some extent absent from his own life but who remains basically decent. The novel invites us to project our own anxieties onto the story of his fall, a strategy not without risk. It is difficult to say exactly why this approach succeeds—why it does not seem like an abdication of a novelist’s creative duty to know everything about his characters. Ferris must have contemplated saying more, and one can imagine discarded drafts that make his intended meaning more plain. In this and in other respects, The Unnamed invokes Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, the Wall Street law clerk of an earlier era whose sudden, unexplained refusal to perform his job after many years of loyal service to his employer haunted that employer and has unsettled readers for a century and a half.
It happens that I worked with Ferris’s wife, Elizabeth Kennedy, at the Manhattan law firm that Ferris drew upon to create Tim Farnsworth’s professional world. (I admired Kennedy’s talent as a lawyer, but we were not friends, and I do not know Ferris. Kennedy has since left the law and published a novel of her own.) This gives me no special insight into Ferris’s work, since “Troyer, Barr” is not the Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP where Kennedy and I worked, not the serious professional enterprise that takes up expensive commercial office space in New York and London, but a place of the writer’s imagination (even if a few stock Cravath anecdotes have been borrowed and repurposed). But my acquaintance with Troyer, Barr’s storied antecedent did cause me to think about the way writers metabolize experience and render it heightened, refined, and purposive on the page in the way that life rarely is. Ferris invokes the world of a white shoe Manhattan law firm in a relatively small number of decisive strokes, the way Daumier did the Paris bar, swiftly but indelibly, with tolerance enough but without sentiment. Another writer might have given us several knowing paragraphs on the Janus-faced relations between the partners; on the process by which students are selected from the top law schools to join the firm; or on the provenance of the art hanging on the walls, or the woods and lacquers used in the bespoke conference room tables on the top floors. Ferris surely knows all about these things. But he also knows something more, something better. He inhabits his fictional firm rather than describing it from the outside. He knows what a novelist knows.
Ferris’s most recent novel, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour, is like The Unnamed in that it layers over a recognizable social setting a small but pervasive strangeness, disturbing the settled life of a man who has achieved (if that is the right word) a privileged and complacent life. Paul O’Rourke is a successful Manhattan dentist with a good practice and no family. He is an overachiever, a grind, a man of little social instinct and almost as little feeling. He finds himself at first annoyed, and then more and more disturbed, by a curious phenomenon: someone has created a website that purports to belong to his dental practice. This website is conventional in form, but it begins to feature cabalistic writings that, after an increasingly fevered investigation, O’Rourke finally connects to a shadowy religious movement. The movement’s representatives claim that O’Rourke is one of them—that he can trace his roots to an ancient people called the Ulms, who conceive of themselves as uniquely chosen to fulfill a Biblical destiny. O’Rourke is drawn deeper into their network, meeting a prominent and charismatic hedge fund manager who is also among the elect. O’Rourke never quite relinquishes his skepticism of the Ulms, but his equilibrium is definitely disturbed and in some way he finds himself awakened. In the end, however, the Ulms disappear much the way that they came, and O’Rourke is thrown back on himself. As in The Unnamed, the metaphysical mystery remains unsolved.
Initially, To Rise Again seems burdened by a weakness of voice, surprising in that Ferris’s prior novels showed such extraordinary command of voice, indeed were built in large part on that single virtuosic ability. But the muffled quality of the narration in the first 100 pages of To Rise Again turns out to be not a technical failure but a strategic choice.
Each Ferris novel is characterized by a doubled sense of arrival or becoming; we know that Ferris must resolve his plot, but there is also a secondary mystery, that of how he will write his way out of some technical quandary to which, Houdini-like, he has voluntarily submitted. In Then We Came To The End, it was his much-remarked use of the first person plural; in The Unnamed, it was giving Tim Farnsworth an illness that had to be specific and devastating in its effects but remain vague in its etiology, and to make of this vagueness a strength, an interpretive enlargement, rather than something that wears away the reader’s affection. In making the narrator of To Rise Again unredeemably dull, Ferris sets up a different problem: how to write a compelling novel about a man who is not compelling even to himself. In Paul O’Rourke, Ferris deliberately gives us a man worn smooth by convention—a man who is no one in particular. Of course, in life many of us are no one in particular, are merely a collection of second hand attitudes and weakly motivated affections. But in fiction it is the convention to emphasize what is most telling and authentic in character, which is largely what makes the characters in a novel paradoxically so much more vivid than the people we encounter in life.
It is tempting to say that O’Rourke is depressed, but it is more accurate to say that he is soul-sick in a way that clinical psychology does not have a term for – and this seems to be Ferris’s project as a writer, to develop that vocabulary and also, perhaps, to gesture toward a cure. It might also be said that Paul O’Rourke is an empty vessel by narrative necessity and that the story of To Rise Again is that of his being filled, briefly, by a species of alluring, Scientology-like cabalistic nonsense, only to find himself empty again at the end when the illusion fades. Such a fate can only befall a protagonist who begins in a condition of spiritual emptiness. It so happens that Joshua Ferris has diagnosed this condition in many of his fellow Americans, which is what gives his work much of its motivation and its urgency.
To Rise Again also displays Ferris’ cultivated hostility to digital culture, about which he has commented publicly and which is real enough. It would be a mistake, however, to over-read this element of his critique of contemporary culture and to turn him into a McLuhan figure. Technology in Ferris is a telling symptom, even a kind of signature trait, but it is not the disease itself. Facebook may provide an at-hand means of escaping our broader ethical responsibilities, but the urge to escape is not new. For Ferris, the most humane act is listening, and this is the thing his characters are most tellingly unable to do. Because they are unable to listen, to attend to others, they cannot know them; because they cannot know the people around them, they are essentially alone; and being, despite their inability to listen, basically social creatures, they suffer in their isolation. But their suffering is not Mark Zuckerberg’s responsibility, and in any event he does not care.
Ferris inhabits the genre of the novel as few writers do, even very good ones. It is always tempting, perhaps especially for the ambitious novelist, to resort to devices that seem to deliver the message more efficiently: the embedded essay; the set piece character introduction; extended exposition. Ferris diligently resists all of these temptations, preferring to work almost constantly at the intersection of character and narrative, with dialogue and action thus doubly motivated. Another way to say this is that Ferris believes absolutely in the plasticity of the novel, its unique work as a genre. He is not looking for a way out.
Like Wallace and Franzen, Ferris is rooted in the Midwest, and he dwells rhetorically within the culture of the American middle even as he satirizes it. At the same time, the virtues he seems prepared to endorse are not those of our blighted contemporaneity but older, possibly even mythological American virtues: self-reliance, the dignity of work (of the proper sort), the authenticity of unmediated experience. He pointedly rejects religion, but he sometimes talks like a preacher, and his prophecy is dark. For Ferris, our culture is full of traps and lures; what is sold to us with the cant of spontaneity and free expression is gradually revealed to be ersatz and despair-inducing, just a way of separating us from our money. Our desire for belonging is ruthlessly exploited; our wanting makes us vulnerable, and our love makes us weak. Ferris is often a very funny writer, but the paradox of his work is that if you laugh too long, you may miss the fact that the joke of our cultural moment is on us all. Resistance is imperative.
If Ferris’s art has lacked anything it has only been a sense of scale. To date he has been a kind of “domestic” novelist, albeit an especially compelling one. Of course, the domestic novel can sometimes throw into relief the very largest human questions, and there is no doubt that Ferris regards these as his proper quarry, or that certain of them—including what it might mean to have a soul, and whether the concept of the soul can have any meaning in the absence of God—have always lay beneath the sometimes antic surface of his narratives. Ferris has deliberately chosen to work within a small frame, which highlights his gifts of linguistic discipline and narrative economy but threatens now to constrain his vision. A sprawling, socially ambitious book, even a putative failure, written in a new register or multiple registers, might be the best possible next move for him. To risk sentimentality, or imprecision or vagueness of expression—to reach for slightly more than he can grasp—may be anathema to the author of so austere and unyielding a novel as The Unnamed. But the rewards, whether harvested now or later as the result of some fuller maturity, could be immense. A writer of Ferris’s talent and conviction appears only rarely. That the fullest realization of that talent be achieved matters greatly, insofar as the American novel matters at all.