Simplicity and Awareness in Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed

The Unnamed
The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So, I read this at the same time I was reading Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin, and a lot of the same ideas come up in both books. No, Voluntary Simplicity does not encourage people to chuck it all, take a walk, and not turn back. But it does deal a lot with conscious action and awareness and how living consciously can often alienate us from the rest of society. In The Unnamed, main character Tim is trapped in the dichotomy between mind and body. He prefers—as many of us do—to live almost exclusively in his mind, until his malady hits and he’s at the mercy of his body, his mind a mere passenger.

There’s a scene in which Tim is sitting still, absorbed in something at the office late at night when he’s surprised by the motion-sensor lights shutting off. The surprise pulls him back into his body, reminds him that he’s not just a mind functioning on its own. This scene sums up the premise of the book for me.

There’s the micro-version of this single-minded attention that excludes all else with Tim and his attorney colleagues focusing laser-like attention on the task at hand and ignoring all else around them, including their bodily needs and their families and the weather. Then there’s the macro-version, in which there are signs all over of global warming and ecological disaster and people barely notice them (if at all) as they go about their lives. (This scenario is in Voluntary Simplicity, too.) Of course, everything seen from Tim’s point of view is suspect, so the reader needs to decide for herself whether to trust Tim’s perspective or not. Maybe there really aren’t bees dying off; only Tim sees them because they don’t exist for anyone else.

The story of Tim’s illness seems to be a metaphor for the journey through life. We travel through life feeling complacent until something wakes us up and we reconnect mind and body and notice our surroundings as if for the first time. We travel through life as one individual ego, essentially separate from everyone else even though we are, in fact, connected to and dependent upon every other entity with which we share this world. What does it take to bring awareness to this interdependence and the need for compassion and collective action? What is the motion sensor light that will bring us back into the world?

All of which is a long way of saying I came upon this book at the exact right moment, I think, and I found it immensely satisfying.

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