Not Feeling The Ferris

Fiction Lit-Crit News Postmodernism Television

Fourteen days into the new decade, tastemakers and hipsters are already buzzing about two groundbreaking artistic sensations that may define the current generation: MTV's "Jersey Shore" and Joshua Ferris's The Unnamed. What I'm really concerned about is that I've sampled both and I like "Jersey Shore" a whole lot better.

Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came To The End, is a lucky writer -- his latest novel is being set up as the first hot book of 2010 by the lit-crit establishment, and he's being increasingly touted as the New Franzen in Town. This surprises me because I only see in Ferris a talented middleweight, a "safe" postmodernist perhaps (but then, didn't Jonathan Franzen fill the same role?). I get it that The Unnamed's cryptic plot (a middle-aged professional husband and father has a strange mental disease and can't stop walking) is supposed to recall John Cheever's The Swimmer, but that beautiful short story delivered its koan-like message in a quick punch, while this novel's opening pages threaten to pull up a chair and stay a long time.

In fact, I couldn't get past the first several pages of The Unnamed (perhaps this is to Ferris's credit; I usually can't get past the first sentence of a Jonathan Lethem novel). I'm immediately put off by the narrative voice -- that same heavy, mannered, solemn, snow-is-general-all-over-Ireland opening voice that so often gives novel-writing MFAs a bad name:

It was the cruelest winter. The winds were rabid off the rivers. Ice came down like poisoned darts. Four blizzards in January alone, and the snowbanks froze into gray barricades as grim and impenetrable as anything in war. Tombstones were buried across the cemetery fields and cars parked curbside were swallowed undigested. The long-term debate about changing weather was put aside for immediate concern for the elderly and the shut- ins, while the children went weeks without school. Deliveries came to a halt and the warehouses clogged up on days the planes were approved to land. There were lines at the grocery store, short tempers, a grudging toward the burden of adjustment. Some clever public services addressed the civic concerns — heat shelters, volunteer home checks. The cold was mother of invention, a vengeful mother whose lessons were delivered at the end of a lash.

Do I really have to read this whole pretentious novel, just to be clued-in to the scene in 2010? Spare me. At least "Jersey Shore" makes me laugh.

I do like high-concept psychological novels about modern society, just for the record -- Tom McCarthy's Remainder, for instance, immediately grabbed me, and delivered on its promise. Maybe The Unnamed improves, but the self-serious opening makes it very difficult to stay to find out.

For what it's worth, here's the YouTube trailer for the book. I don't like this either, and the ghosts of Jack Kerouac and Forrest Gump do not appreciate being beckoned.

Anyway, if Joshua Ferris does turn out to be the most influential novelist of the 2010s, I know I'll have some company over at Bookslut.

9 Responses to "Not Feeling The Ferris"

I haven't read the new Ferris. I'm certainly curious and will probably still give the book a shot. But that passage, relying as it does on taut grammar connecting nouns with false literary import (like Franzen), isn't promising. In fact, that Franzen style -- which is also in the Jonathan Dee novel (couldn't get past two pages before I threw it against the wall) -- seems to be imitated a lot these days. And it has me worried. Because it's going to give noun-centric sentences a bad rap. Is Franzen the new Hemingway? At least with Hemingway's imitators, you had great source material. The sense of someone having lived. A curiosity about people. I'll say this much. I'll be sure to check out JERSEY SHORE because of your recommendation.

by Dan on

Thanks for posting the beginning of the latest hot novel. Good GOD, that's bad! Years ago, I read for an agent - and if I had read that opening I would've sent the manuscript back immediately. My mistake, as it's obviously a money-maker.

Can someone please explain to me why this amateur shit is being published?

by Ben on

That is certainly not one of the all time great openings, but I would be willing to give the book a shot. I think serious or "self-serious" can be a help sometimes when the world is so messed up and violent it is comforting to have some writers reflect that darkness. Not that all literature should be that way of course. I guess that is why I liked "The Corrections" so much.

by V. on

Sounds to me like Ferris is stuck doing a DeLillo/Jack Gladney/White Noise impersonation. Same with Franzen. Both of them can go jump in the toilet.

by Pete on

Ferris even looks like Franzen.

by Muzzy on

Oh wow that is uncommonly bad. Thanks, Levi -- you've saved me from paying for trash!

by Johan Djeen on

Po-mod hasn't an ass to sit on. I'm too busy reading the mods to waste time on my hopeless generation. Yeah, there're a few po-mod writers that may be worth the Kindle bill; but, po-mod is like a polished turd anyway (the reason Jersey Shore is so funny). The best thing about po-mod is that most of them will contract AIDS and die (the reason Jersey shore is so funny). In reality no one has picked up where the modernists left off, and until that point there is no po-mod.

Re John Cheever's exquisite "The Swimmer" and your comment on the Ferris book: "Do I really have to read this whole pretentious novel, just to be clued-in to the scene in 2010?"

This is from the introductory note in the Ann Charters anthology *The Story and Its Writer*, which I use in the community college short story class I teach:

"Usually a rapid writer, Cheever said he liked best the stories that he wrote in less than a week, although he spent months working on 'The Swimmer' (1964). He originally wrote a draft of the plot as 'a perfectly good' novel, but then he burned it. 'I could very easily have sold the book,' he said, 'but the trick was to get the winter constellations in the midsummer sky without anyone knowing about it, and it didn't take 250 pages to do that.'"

by Ben on

I find it hard to believe that you have done any serious consideration of either Franzen's or David Wallace's work (just to name a couple) if you really believe that. Many recent authors with Wallace being the most vocal have openly wrestled with the problems of post modernism and indeed embraced many aspects of modernism.

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