The title in question is Joshua Ferris' The Unnamed, a novel about a lawyer struggling with an undiagnosed compulsion to endlessly walk until he keels over. An odd and evocative premise, one that Yabroff wrestles with mightily. She initially wonders if the affliction may be a metaphor for environmental destruction or the search for the divine or the nature of addiction, but concludes that it doesn't really matter. "What if the book is about nothing more than a man who takes really long walks?" she muses before launching into a discussion about the dangers of overanalyzing:
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.Anyone who has survived a lit class taught by a pompous professor knows Yabroff has a point, but it needs to be riddled with as many cavets as Sonny Corleone had bullet holes after his infamous toll-booth stop. The biggest one, of course, is that often authors want us to interpret their work. None less than T.S. Eliot spoke of how we ought to sift through layers of significance, moving from basic plotting to character conflict to the subtleties and rhythms of language to overarching themes. And we know Hemmingway wanted us think about more than a fishing trip in The Old Man and the Sea.
Perhaps the key to Yabroff's confusion is her use of the word subtext, a squishy term that can refer to, say, a work's structuralist subtleties or its Brechtian transgressions or psychoanalytical archetypes or some such highfalutin concept. Usually, it doesn't concern itself a whole lot with an author's intent. No wonder, then, that such "interpretation" would ultimately prove impoverishing, deadening, dull. Those ideas don't write books. People do, scattering words like breadcrumbs, laying trails into delight and danger and the deep things of life. Sure, we can stop from time to time to admire the critical scenery. But our first work lies simply in following where the path leads.
(Picture: CC 2008 by NJScott)