by Joshua Ferris
Reagan Arthur Books, 320 pp., $13.99
Joshua Ferris’ second novel, The Unnamed, tells the story of Tim Farnsworth, a successful Manhattan lawyer who is subjected to intermittent bouts of involuntary walking. One moment Tim will be at work, or at home with his family, and the next he will be forced by his restless legs out into the street, trapped in his own locomotive prison. Only physical exhaustion can stop Tim’s legs, and so he often ends up calling his wife, after having woken up in some gutter or ditch, feet swollen and frostbit, to come pick him up and take him home, where all he can do is brace himself and wait for the next surge of ambulatory fury.
The novel begins with the third recurrence of Tim’s peculiar condition, which has flared up twice in years past only to subside randomly, irrespective of the dozens of medical specialists, psychiatrists, and gurus who have tried to help Tim find a cure. As Tim, his wife Jane, and their teenage daughter, Becka, try to deal with the condition—having a backpack with food always at the ready, experimenting with handcuffs and other instruments of forced motionlessness, coming up with excuses for colleagues bothered by Tim’s brusque exits—Ferris presents a tender portrait of a family under extreme duress.
Even as Becka and Jane turn their lives upside down for Tim’s sake, what seems to bother Tim most about the walking is that it threatens his career. Tim is said to do “important work” for his law firm; he loves the thrill of courtroom drama and the challenge of composing cogent arguments. As his bouts of forced walking take their toll on his ability to do his job, Tim tries with all his might to stay involved in the murder defense of one his firm’s corporate clients. Eventually he is booted from the case and given a temporary suspension from the firm. Tim’s nadir comes as he sits at home, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs and waiting for the walks to commence. When he becomes a danger to himself, Jane must forcibly handcuff him inside the house.
As the plot of The Unnamed follows first the gradual disappearance of Tim’s walking and the corresponding recovery of his family life, then the return of the disease in a more strident, awful form, Ferris is willing only to hint at what lies at the source of Tim’s condition. The fact that the disease is entirely invented—Ferris has admitted in interviews that he made the affliction up only after consulting with doctors and determining that there was no record of anything like the walking occurring in real life—begs the question of what, if anything, it is meant to symbolize or reference.
Tim’s workaholism is a possibility. It could be argued that Tim’s devotion to his job drives a deeper wedge between him and his family than the walking does. But Tim isn’t drawn as a self-important, slash-and-burn corporate type. He seems to have a genuine passion for practicing law. Later in the book, when Tim’s mind has been battered by exposure and exhaustion, he sets up his office in a diner and as if he is going to work. Tim talks to the waitress like she’s his secretary. The scene is one of the book’s saddest, and would not fit in a book in which we are invited to pass judgment on someone for loving his job too much.
So, if Ferris is not trying to say something about our obsession with work, is he saying something else? A question about the separation between the mind and body runs throughout The Unnamed. Even as his behavior becomes harder and harder to explain, Tim is desperate to prove his sanity. And yet, there is something wrong with Tim: what does it matter if the locus of the problem is in the brain or in the legs?
This is the question that Tim ignores, even as the evidence of its answer appears all around him. Because the life Tim has left behind, the life his disease has kept him from experiencing, is described by Ferris in its particularly physical dimensions, the reader understands his world through a distinctly physical prism: the sensation of making love to his wife, the taste of a delicious meal, the cozy comfort of his own home, even the stimulating mental exercise of his job. Even as Tim seems more and more convinced that there is an irreparable divide between our physical experience and our mental (or spiritual?) experience, Ferris collapses those distinctions by what he chooses to put on the page.
Despite its post-modern, almost sci-fi set-up, The Unnamed locates its themes in the nineteenth-century concerns of how it feels to be in the world, and how it feels when our relationship to the world is dramatically altered. The walking separates Tim from the things and the people he loves, and in that respect the disease is typical in its cruel banality. In the end, it is not important what ails Tim, but how it affects him.