Joshua Ferris: The Unnamed

The Unnamed is a portrait of a man brutally ravaged by mental illness. He suffers from a very extreme obsessive compulsive disorder: he finds himself compelled to go out walking, for hours on end, no matter the weather, until he becomes so exhausted that he cannot stay awake any longer. When he wakes up, behind a dumpster or wherever, he calls his wife, she retrieves him, and they return, warily, to normal life, and wait for the next incident. The book is told almost entirely through his perspective and much of it revolves around his poignant struggle to understand the mind-body dichotomy, to reclaim his body that insists on this crazy walking against his will. At times he is completely psychotic. He loses fingers and toes to frostbite. He cannot work. His relationship with his wife and daughter is damaged beyond repair. And despite a vast battery of medical and psychological tests, no doctor is ever able to come up with a name for what ails him, let alone a cure.

Yep, that is The Unnamed. It’s very, very well done. Well crafted, well written. Not a single word out of place. If you like unreliable narrators and intense explorations of mental illness, this is definitely the book for you.

It’s not really my thing though. I prefer rollicking yarns and prose poetry; sweeping sagas with reliable third person omniscient narrators that take you out of yourself and into another world. I read The Unnamed because my book group picked it for this month. I’m glad I read it. It certainly made me think. I never would have read it otherwise. It’s good to push the envelope, right?

Lisa Grunwald: The Irresistible Henry House

After reading a string of rather excessively macho novels I made a point of looking for something a little softer when I went to the library this week. I came home with four books, three of which were written by women and are all about, y’know, relationships and stuff. (The fourth is a Booker prizewinner by a man, Plainsong, which I may or may not read. Actually, “may or may not read” applies to all of my library books. That’s the beauty of the library. One of the many beauties.)

Anyway The Irresistible Henry House was… well… irresistible. I read it in two days. Which is very unusual for me, alas. I don’t know if you heard the story on NPR, but back in the day (early 20th century) many college Home Ec programs had a “practice house.” An actual real house where Home Ec majors could go and live and practice, y’know, household stuff. Often these practice houses would also include a “practice baby.” Yes, a real baby. They would get a baby from the local orphanage and it would live in the house and the girls would take turns being its mom. These babies were then highly sought after by adoptive parents because they had been raised using the very latest child-rearing methods & philosophies. Like feeding on a schedule. And not picking it up when it cries, because “if you don’t train him now, you can’t train him later.”

So, this is real. They really did have practice houses and practice babies back in the day. And Lisa Grunwald has written a novel about it. Henry House, as you might have guessed, begins life as a practice baby. He has a different mother each week. And, it turns out, he is quite a charming charismatic little fellow, to such an extent that when his time is up (age two), the program director finds she can’t bear to part with him, and he ends up staying. He spends his whole childhood being cared for by practice moms. The ramifications of this are fascinating. Henry learns to be perfectly democratic with his moms. He learns to never ever show a preference for one over the others, not even by implication such as sharing a favorite color. (I actually know someone like this, in real life. It is freaky.) And as he grows up, predictably, this leads to big problems in the romance department.

Aspects of this book are hard to take. Particularly the child-rearing methods. You don’t have to be very far along the attachment parenting spectrum to be offended by the outdated philosophy. And Henry’s difficulties with adult relationships are painful to read as well. However, Grunwald does an amazing job with the material. This story could have been cheesy and maudlin, but she totally makes it work. Henry is a complex, three-dimensional character. Martha, the program director who refuses to read Dr. Spock and treats the practice babies brutally (by today’s standards), is also complex. Sure, I wanted to strangle her, but I also had a lot of sympathy for her. It works because the writing is so good. The author doesn’t pull her punches, and she never preaches. She is completely matter-of-fact. She lays it out, and you draw your own conclusions.

Other aspects of the book are a lot of fun. Henry is a charmer after all. And furthermore the book is set during the baby boomer era with tons of cultural references. There is plenty of color and humor to offset the hard parts. A page-turner for sure.

Highly recommend. Especially if you’ve been reading a lot of macho boy writers lately.