Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Language is like a drawbridge": A conversation with Joshua Ferris

photo by Nina Subin

Joshua Ferris’
Then We Came to the End chronicled the life and death of a Chicago advertising firm. Relayed in the first-person plural, it was sharp, witty and insightful about how work informs our lives. It was also a hit, and won Ferris the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Novel. Ferris’ follow-up, The Unnamed (Reagan Arthur/Black Bay Books, $15.99), is more harrowing and more moving. It concerns Tim Farnsworth, a successful lawyer stricken with a bizarre ailment that manifests in compulsive, uncontrollable walking. In the midst of whatever activity Tim can suddenly be carried far away by his own legs, trudging through sometimes punishing weather without appropriate clothing or supplies until he collapses into sleep whenever and wherever his body finally gives out. His condition gradually eats away at everything he cherishes, including his job and his marriage to Jane, whose genuine devotion to Tim is pushed to its limits. The Unnamed observes its characters’ trials with tremendous tenderness. Though fascinating, inventive, and at times extremely humorous, it’s uncompromising, even brutal in how it follows its central idea to what ultimately feels like its inevitable conclusion. I spoke with Ferris last week when he was in Toronto attending the International Festival of Authors.

JB: Your first novel took its title from a line in Don DeLillo’s
Americana. There’s a certain boldness of language and engagement with vernacular in The Unnamed that occasionally recalls DeLillo as well. Does he remain an important touchstone for you?

Joshua Ferris: DeLillo’s a giant. He’ll forever be incorruptible for me. His books are woven into my reader’s DNA. How that translates into my own writing is very hard for me to say. I think it’s important to try to not sound like DeLillo. I’ll go out of my way to strike sentences that sound too much like DeLillo or Proust or Hemingway. If I can feel the hovering presence of someone I admire within a sentence, I scratch it out.

JB: Because it gives an undesirable sense of assurance, knowing that your writing conforms to a tested model?

JF: No. It just gives me a sense of anxiety. I’d rather write a bad sentence that seems to possess authorial intent from me than write a good sentence whose authorial intent can be ascribed to someone else. That may be pride talking, but I think it’s also something deeper than that, going back to an Emersonian self-reliance that states that to borrow from someone else is to abdicate your originality. There may in fact be nothing new under the sun, but it’s important to try my best to sound like me.

JB: What does it mean to name something? Your novel implies that the difference between having and not having a name is the difference between having a place in the world and being rejected by it.

JF: I think that’s accurate. It’s also about having a set of attributes that adhere to you. There’s a tic you find sometimes in writing. You have a character named John and you’re told something is “a very John-like thing to do.” It’s a shorthand for some writers to convey an entire personality, just using the character’s name as a modifier. When you take that name away, you’re looking nakedly at the object itself—maybe you’re unable to look at it. The specific referent in the title of
The Unnamed is the unnamed disease. You can’t make anything of it. Doctors can’t rally around it. There can’t be a 5K run in benefit of it. So the result of this namelessness is a tremendous loneliness. Adam named the animals for a reason—he was lonely. By naming the animals he got closer to them. If he’d kept the animals nameless it would have been a much chillier garden. This goes back to what language can and can’t do, how it bridges certain gaps, how it breaks down. The limits of language are something I wanted to explore in the book, especially with respect to subjective experience, how you can or cannot convey to your most intimate loved ones how you’re actually feeling. To extend the metaphor, language is like a drawbridge. Sooner or later it goes up and you can’t get to the other side.

JB: Do you relate to Tim and Jane’s relationship, to how they attempt to express their feelings to each other?

JF: Yes. I think what they do in a more dramatic way what many married people do, which is come together at a moment in time, find themselves speaking the same language, and then for whatever reason fly apart. Far apart, and for a long time. Then they come back together for inexplicable reasons and do it all over again. My reading of the book is that it’s basically a love story.

JB: Has writing this novel strengthened or weakened your faith in the durability of love?

JF: That’s tough to say. I don’t think that a novel informs or comments upon its writer. The writer had those ideas somewhere in them prior to writing the book. Once written, the book might represent one-tenth of the writer’s understanding of love. There’s still that other 90% of the writer’s psyche that hasn’t been plumbed.
The Unnamed is one take regarding one couple. It can’t really teach me anything. All I taught myself in writing it was how to write the book. The finished novel is not a textbook for the future writer.

JB: But are you surprised by what you’re saying about love as you write, what you seem to believe or hold dear?

JF: Yes, quite often. I’m probably being instructed as I write, getting some clarity as to how I see things. It’s like feeling something in the dark and then suddenly shining a light on it. Pretty or not, there it is.

JB: You were saying earlier that you have a poor memory. What makes you say that?

JF: Fiction seems to be made up of three predominant branches, those being memory, imagination and language. I can do language pretty well. I can do imagination well. But memory seems to be my weak branch. I’m sure there are writers who would want more branches or fewer branches or whatever, but that’s how I see it.

The Unnamed lends itself to being read as an allegory, but I’m personally uncomfortable with that term because it seems to imply a one-to-one relationship between the ostensible metaphor and what it represents.

JF: I never in a million years would have written this with the intention of it being seen as allegory. The allegorical readings I’ve come across have surprised me. It’s obviously a metaphor for sickness because I invented the disease. I wanted to explore sickness without the baggage of a known disease. When I read Kafka, I don’t think of Josephine the Mouse as an allegory or metaphor for something else. I don’t read about K.’s travels in the castle as a metaphor for the terrible bureaucracy that overtook the 20th century and led to the systematic decimation of Jews in the Holocaust. I take it all very literally, and only later think about the allegorical possibilities surrounding the story. That eventually gives you a fuller and more interesting reading, but I think the primary work of the reader is to imagine the actual, literal situation described. That’s responsible reading. The rest is 10th grade term papers.

JB: There’s a current running through
The Unnamed that concerns religious belief, and it seems that you’ve left the door open in the novel’s final passage, with Tim suspended in this almost metaphysical space of listening and anticipation.

JF: That was always my intention. Dogmatic fiction, fiction that closes doors on possibilities, isn’t exciting for me. To go back to DeLillo, one of the great triumphs of
White Noise is that it is excoriating about technology. Technology is something to be dreaded in the book, and there’s a real nostalgia for pre-technological time. But the same sentences that cause me to arrive at those conclusions are the very same sentences that bring a tremendous Romanticism to technology. Throughout The Unnamed there are philosophical ideas presented concerning the existence of God or the difference between the mind and body. For me to have tried to close the book with clear, absolute conclusions to the explorations of those ideas would have taken the book out of the realm of fiction and into that of the essay. I don’t think that’s my job. I was always trying to tell the story, to rely on imagination, and where it landed was where it had to land.

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