[From the magazine issue dated Jan 25, 2010]
Joshua Ferris’s first novel, Then We Came to the End, a comic look at work culture during economic upheaval, was a bestselling National Book Award finalist that propelled Ferris into Next Great American Novelist territory. So when you hear that his new novel, The Unnamed, is about a man named Tim who is periodically overcome by a compulsion to walk without stopping until he collapses from exhaustion, you’ll probably say, “Yes, but what is it about?” The affliction must be a metaphor for something larger. Addiction, maybe. Looming environmental catastrophe. The search for God. After all, a smart and agile writer like Ferris has to be smuggling a Big Idea under his seemingly straightforward premise. But what if the book is about nothing more than a man who takes really long walks?
When we talk about the difference between “high” and “pop” culture, we often mean that one requires the work of interpretation, while the other is a ready source of easy pleasure. Certain writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers are assumed to have intentions beyond simple entertainment: The Metamorphosis can’t really just be about a guy who wakes up one morning transformed into a beetle. It has to be a metaphor for self-alienation. (Unless it’s about the Holocaust. Or capitalism.) Anyone who has taken an introductory course in literary theory can play this game, and feel all the smarter for it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it deepens our appreciation of the work.
When we evaluate a work first and foremost for its subtext, we can overlook the power of the text itself. “To interpret is to impoverish,” Susan Sontag wrote 50 years ago, arguing that the best way to engage with a work of art is not to analyze or unpack it, but to take it at face value. Sontag believed cinema, with its capacity for total sensory immersion and its designation as mass, instead of high, culture, was the art form most likely to resist the deadening effects of interpretation. But today even the most mainstream movie is ripe for pseudo-serious analysis: consider the recent essay collection The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, a compilation of academic papers about the cult favorite The Big Lebowski. Rather than film, the most interpretation-proof form of art is nonfiction: memoir, documentary, and, at its most mass level, reality TV. It is possible that the current popularity of nonfiction art is due to just this freedom to consume it whole, without first having to figure out what it “means.”
Consider if Ferris’s novel were published as nonfiction: the true story of a man with a life-destroying condition that baffled medical doctors and psychologists alike. The story’s success would hinge on how effectively Ferris conveyed the pathos and terror of Tim’s affliction, not how cleverly the writer disguised his true concerns. In fact, The Unnamed could work as nonfiction. There’s enough medical detail to make Tim’s condition plausible, and while some events are fantastical, they could just be the result of his mind’s erosion by his disease. (Taken this way, the book resembles Into the Wild, a nonfiction account of a young man who hiked deep into Alaska for unknown reasons.)
Even more than a cure, Tim craves a diagnosis, words to describe his condition. The reader, too, begins to crave the catharsis of comprehension—if not for Tim, at least for ourselves. In the middle of one of his walking spells Tim buys a bird book: “Name a bird and master the world. Reveal nature’s mystery and momentarily triumph over it.” It’s tempting to read this as Ferris’s commentary on the futility of the search for meaning, both in literature and in life. After all, Tim abandons the book in less than a day. But to say Ferris’s message is no message is still an act of interpretation. Maybe sometimes it’s best to just let the birds be birds. And the beetles be beetles.