Conditions and Consequences: Sean Ferrell and Joshua Ferris

Sean Ferrell, Numb (2010)
Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed (2010)

On the table today, two novels whose protagonists have unusual conditions which put great strain on both their own lives and their loved ones’, and which are used by the novels’ respective authors to explore wider issues.

The titular character of Sean Ferrell’s Numb by is unable to feel pain, or to remember who he was before he stumbled, bleeding, into a circus, of which he soon became the star attraction. We join Numb as he is gearing up for his greatest stunt yet – facing off against a lion. Things don’t work out as they should, though, when the lion collapses at the key moment.  As a result, Numb leaves the circus, along with his colleague Mal, and heads to New York, in search of his fortune, his identity, or… well, maybe even he doesn’t really know.

One’s natural expectation with a story like this is that it will focus on uncovering the protagonist’s past, but Ferrell’s novel isn’t like that. The man Numb is now is of greater interest to the tale than the man he used to be; when occasional clues do appear (never adding up to anything like a solution, though), they feel almost like an intrusion – which, in a sense, they are, because Numb’s greatest interest is establishing an identity for himself in the present.

Identity is perhaps the central issue of Numb the novel, as that subject impinges on each of the main characters in some way. Numb himself has to deal with becoming public property to an extent; his feats of endurance make him famous, land him appearances on TV; he becomes the star of innumerable internet videos, about which he learns only by accident, if at all – in short, Numb’s identity multiplies until there are people out there who’ve never met him, who have a more solid conception of who he is than he does himself. Numb’s situation seems to me summed up best by a passage in which he reflects on the experience of staying at length in a hotel (funded by his agent) – surrounded by luxury, everything he could want at hand, but none of it belonging to him.

Mal also has to deal with the effects of Numb’s fame, though in his case the issue is that he has fallen on hard times whilst Numb’s stock has risen; Mal takes desperate measures in an attempt to claw back his sense of self. Elsewhere, we have Emilia, a model with whom Numb embarks on something of a ‘relationship’, and whose identity appears mutable – she gains gratification from Numb’s inability to feel pain in New York, yet, when Numb meets her later in Los Angeles (where she has moved), Emilia is a much softer, more relaxed character. Then there is Hiko, the blind artist with whom Numb falls in something which is not quite love; she captures the essence of her subjects in her works, but keeps a second, private set of portraits, which sum up her own image of those people – she creates multiple identities of others.

By novel’s end, Numb is on his way to discovering who he is, or at least to becoming comfortable with whatever answer to that question he may choose – and we as readers have experienced an interesting and very entertaining examination of what ‘identity’ can mean.

In The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris, lawyer Tim Farnsworth is betrayed not by his memory, but by his body: Tim’s ‘condition’ is that, periodically, he will start walking, and be unable to stop voluntarily, or control where he goes; no accurate diagnosis nor effective treatment has been found. The novel begins as Tim’s condition returns, and chronicles several years in his life, as he goes in and out of remission.

Broadly speaking (the distinction I’m going to make here isn’t clear-cut), if the effects of the condition in Numb are mostly ‘internal’ (e.g. issues of personal identity), in The Unnamed, they’re more ‘external’. In one sense, this is quite literally so, as all that walking has taken its toll on Tim’s body – but that’s relatively minor in terms of the novel. More significant is what happens to Tim’s relationships and the lives of his loved ones; for example, his wife Jane find’s Tim’s condition dominating her life, as she’s the one who has to collect him from wherever he ends up after one of his walking spell (the staccato flow of the story, as chapters and scenes begin abruptly with Jane collecting Tim from who-knows-where, conveys this sense of disruption beautifully), and even gave up her job to keep an eye on Tim during his previous bout of the condition; later in the novel, the strain of coping with all this drives Jane to drink. Tim’s relationship with his young daughter, Becka, also comes under stress, because she doesn’t understand why he keeps going off as he does.

All this is not to say, however, that Tim’s condition has no psychological effects on him, because it does. These emerge particularly in the final third of The Unnamed, which is where the novel really takes off stylistically. Tim starts to personify his condition as another entity inhabiting his body; or perhaps that’s how it really is – Ferris maintains a wonderful ambiguity over the matter. And the final section, which drops chapters entirely in a reflection of Tim’s now-chronic walking, reveals just how much he has been transformed by his condition. But even Tim finds a peace of sorts in the final pages; one closes the book feeling that Tim’s story has ended in the right place, for all that the conclusion is bittersweet.

Sean Ferrell’s website
Some other reviews of Numb: Elizabeth A. White; In Lieu of a Field Guide; Boston Book Bums.

Joshua Ferris’s website
Some other reviews of The Unnamed: The Asylum; The Book Lady’s Blog; Reading Matters.


  1. Two very interesting sounding books! I started reading Ferris’ first novel but somehow got side-tracked a few years back. I remember enjoying it though and will definitely try and finish it before attempting his second. sounds like you enjoyed both novels. Wonderful review David.

  2. Thanks for the link shout-out and for this fabulous piece. I have NUMB on the to-read pile right now and hadn’t yet made the mental connection to THE UNNAMED, but now I’m really looking forward to it.

  3. David Hebblethwaite

    18th October 2010 at 10:48 pm

    Sakura: Thanks! The Unnamed was my first time reading Ferris; I’d heard mixed opinions of the book, but in the end I really quite liked it. I was probably about two-thirds of the way through before I was certain that I liked it, though; Numb is more instantly enjoyable, I think.

  4. David Hebblethwaite

    18th October 2010 at 10:55 pm

    Rebecca: Thank you! If I were to compare the two, I’d say Numb is a more exuberant book than The Unnamed; since you loved the Ferris, I think you’d probably like Numb, too.

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