Tim Farnsworth has a problem. At times, he is overwhelmed by an irresistable urge to walk. Not just around the block a time or two, but to the point of exhaustion, regardless of the weather, regardless of whatever else demands his time, like his job as a lawyer, his comfortable suburban home, his family. His wandering can go on for days at a time, a sort of sober bender, until he is felled by exhaustion. His wife, Jane, manages as best she can, helping him prepare when he knows the compulsion is on him, then picking him up from wherever he winds up, hours, days, weeks later. Despite attempts to gain a medical diagnosis, none can be found. But Tim’s walking is destroying his health, career, his family and ultimately, his sanity.
Of course Tim’s condition seems metaphorical. Wrap it up in whatever works. Maybe it represents the unavoidable base of human nature erupting forth through the plastic garb of civilization and taking control. Ferris says otherwise, that he wanted to explore how sickness strips away one’s life. (readrollshow.com/site/index.php/2010/-03/involuntary-walking-the-joshua-ferris-interview) His work as a lawyer defines Tim, even to the point of ignoring his family. But his illness takes that away. He loves his family, even his difficult daughter, Becka, but his illness strips that from him as well. He retains his feelings for Jane and his daughter but cannot sustain a normal relationship with them.
I was struck by two elements in the book. Jane manages to hold on to her feelings for and eagerness to connect with Tim long after most would have simply given up. It was a very touching love story. Who would endure so much for so long for any of us? As Tim descends into forms of psychosis, I was reminded of Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man
in which his character must contend with a reality that has been thrust on him through no fault of his own, also stripping him of the world he knew. There are ruminations in The Unnamed
on the differences between the body and soul, God and religion, nature and the spiritual.
Without God, the body won, and that couldn’t be possible. He was one thing, his body a different thing altogether, and he was willing a separation, in which he went off to eternal repair while it suffered its due fate of rough handling, dirt, and rot. P 221
There are beautiful passages here. Winter comes in for particularly vivid language.
It was the cruelest winter. The winds were rabid off the rivers. Ice came down like poisoned darts. Four blizzards in January alone, and the snowbanks froze into gray barricades as grim and impenetrable as anything in war. Tombstones were buried across the cemetery fields and cars parked curbside were swallowed, undigested…
Another returns to deathly images:
The cemetery had been retired under a white sheet. Darkness now settled over it like dust. A black Mercedes threaded its way through the maze of winding streets. p62
I’m a sucker for writing like that.
I suppose one might see Jane as Ariadne offering her Hercules a way to get home, and he does try, succeeding in some, but not all efforts. There are road trip elements here, particularly when Tim tries to cross the country to visit an ailing Jane. Ferris makes you feel the pain of Tim’s effort to reach home. But that may be reading too much into it. It did work as a love story.
I was involved in the book, eager to read it, resentful when I had to leave it for the demands of daily life. But I also felt conflicted as it headed into the final sections. Tim’s compulsion advances to active psychosis, if we are not to take as purely symbolic the conversations Tim has with his other, interior self. Although I enjoyed the “Shrinking Man” element, intended or not, it all got a bit muddled for me. Tough to follow. My other, inner self rebelled.
Overall, it was a very interesting read, with some gorgeous writing and an intriguing concept. The execution was not always compelling, and wandered a bit towards the end. But The Unnamed
is definitely worth a look.