Literary Criticism and Significance
After its publication, The Unnamed received numerous glowing reviews. However, this book did not receive as favorable reviews as did Joshua Ferris’s debut novel, Then We Came to the End, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. In contrast to his hilarious first book, his second book is as devastating as it is profound. Some fans of Ferris’s earlier work were disappointed when they began reading The Unnamed, partially because the voice and tone of this novel seemed like a shocking departure for the author. In The New York Times, Jay McInerney writes:
It’s difficult to believe that The Unnamed and Then We Came to the End come from the same laptop.
These two novels achieve completely different goals, and through them, Ferris has proven that he has the potential to master both comedy and tragedy.
Despite The Unnamed’s myriad positive attributes—its originality, profundity, and compelling portraits of illness, marriage, family, and existential crises—it is not a perfect novel. Tim spends most of his time walking outdoors, but the book suffers from a lack of description of Tim’s surroundings. He is so wrapped up in his tormented mind and bodily ailments that while readers can almost imagine themselves inside Tim’s body, they can rarely imagine themselves on the roads he walks. Tim admits that he paid too little attention to the world before Jane “taught him” to be more observant, but Tim does not narrate the novel. The Unnamed has a third-person omniscient point of view, and some reviewers think Ferris should have painted a more vivid picture of the America through which Tim walks. Jay McInerney writes that Ferris “ignores the landscape.” The reviewer goes on to say that the observations that appear at the end of the book are “too little, way too late.”
Other reviewers do not criticize Ferris’s lack of description so strongly and instead focus on the novel’s heartbreaking portrayal of true love. In the Chicago Sun-Times, Lloyd Sachs writes, “You don’t often find a marriage as affectingly or affirmingly drawn as this one.” It is amazing that Ferris is able to paint such a convincing portrait of a married couple distressed by a completely fabricated disease. Similarly, even though Ferris invented Tim’s illness, the reader can suspend his or her disbelief rather easily thanks to the vivid descriptions of the protagonist’s thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Ferris was perhaps so committed to convincing the reader of Tim’s strange disease that he forgot to devote just as much creative energy to the setting. If it were not for this flaw, The Unnamed would ring perfectly true. Although reviewers may squabble about how Ferris’s second novel measures up to his first, most readers of his work have something in common: they await his third book with baited breath.