I am trying to imagine what Joshua Ferris had in mind when he decided to write his second novel, The Unnamed. I know I shouldn’t think about this, but still I wonder. The novel is about a man, Tim Farnsworth, who has what might be called a walking disorder. He is compelled to go on extremely long walks on desolate roads, unpredictably and uncontrollably.
The walks can occur any time, in the dead of a bitter winter for example, when he ends up exhausted in a park somewhere or by the doorstep of a suburban house far from his own home or office in New York. Eventually he calls his wife, Jane, who gets in the car and drives out to bring him back.
The compulsion has no name, no medical history, no one understands what produces it or how to treat it. One physician calls it, “benign idiopathic peramulation.” That doesn’t help much, does it?
Yet there was no precedent for what he suffered, and no proof of what qualified as a disease among the physicians and clinical investigators: a toxin, a pathogen, a genetic disorder. No evidence of any physical cause. No evidence, no precedent—and the experts could give no positive testimony.
Regardless, physical or mental or some random combination, Tim suffers from it as does his marriage, his relationship with his daughter and his job as a partner in a “high voltage” Manhattan law firm from which he is eventually forced to leave.
There are times when I am reading a novel when I fall into its mood and its words and the way they are put together, and when I begin to think and talk like the people in the story do. I mimic them in both spirit and tone. I think about my life from their perspective and take on their way of being. This happened to me while reading The Unnamed and I did nothing to push it away.
It is how I am sometimes affected by the characters in a film. I come out of the theater and I am one of them. It is a strange experience and while it never lasts long after a film, it tends to last quite a bit longer while reading a book, especially a lengthy one. Is this how we are influenced by the arts? Do their effects linger even when we aren’t aware of them? Perhaps we become the people in the book or the film in ways that are subtle and beyond our comprehension.
Tim’s walks during the winter are brutal. Night after night he is out in the cold, sometimes sleeping in the snow. He develops frostbite, loses a few toes and then some of his fingers. If he has lost or thrown away his cell phone, Jane has no idea where he is. Eventually, he is picked up by the police and taken to the emergency room of the nearest hospital.
Soon thereafter he stops calling Jane and surrenders to the compulsion to keep walking, once across the country, sleeping wherever he can. It is heartbreaking to see him fall from the peak of his profession to the depths of his sleeping bag in the snow.
What does it all mean? Does it have any kind of meaning? It certainly isn’t anything Tim Farnsworth or his creator talk much about. Reviewers are the only ones allowed to play the metaphor game. One suggests it is a metaphor for addiction, “for any compulsion that drives a man or a woman to leave family and community and health behind.” Perhaps so.
But I also see its meaning in terms of control, the uncontrollability of Tim’s affliction and a fair amount of what most of us are forced to deal with at some point in our life. Ferris writes, “So much of who he was was involuntary.” He is helpless to do anything about it. And it is relentless,
After traveling the world in search of a cure, a treatment, plausible or not, spending hours visiting physicians, therapists, researchers, and crackpots, Tim eventually gives up. He surrenders to his walking compulsion. Giving up is what most people eventually do when faced with uncontrollable, unpredictable events in their life.
The Unnamed is also about his marriage and how it crumbles under the weight of the walking compulsion. In my mind, it raises the same questions that I saw in the film Rabbit Hole. What is called for when two people who love one another are confronted by an illness, a tragedy, or misfortune? Do they come together or grow apart or is there anything that can be done about it?