By Joshua Ferris
Little, Brown, and Company ($24.99, 310 pp.)
Does it seem that things have been especially nasty this last decade? Nature threw us mass destruction and death from hurricane, tsunami, wildfire, flood, freeze, drought, pandemic, and now earthquake. When nature wasn’t interested, we created our own devastation and terror with suicide bombings and subsequent wars of revenge, revolution, and redress. Yet only a very small percentage of the world’s population actually directly experienced this pain and suffering.
Some of the rest of us took our hits with fatal, more personalized disease and trauma. And then there were the vast majority whose many troubles were just that – non-fatal troubles like divorce, addiction, unemployment, hunger, and poverty.
As the punch line to the tall guy joke goes: “I didn’t know they piled it that high.”
Clearly these curses on mankind have been around a long time for they all have names and histories and precedents. Even diseases which have not been previously recorded are given names as soon as they appear, although the awkward ones like H1N1 carry numerous street names like Swine Flu or Bird Flu (flu being kind of a catch-all handle). The naming process is important in that it allows us to understand and accept unpleasant events. We may not like them and we suffer nonetheless, but at least they are public and so allow others to express appropriate sympathy.
Joshua Ferris in his unsettling second novel “The Unnamed” considers the consequences when a horrible disease appears which lacks this public understanding because it has never been seen or diagnosed before. In short, it has never been named. What if a family is turned upside down by a physical malady whose pathophysiology no doctor can decipher? What if this disease were to strike without warning, last for months, then abate for months, only to re-appear again in a cycle of suffering? What if it were to strike a very successful white shoe lawyer and his family right in their own backyard?
“Benign idiopathic perambulation” is the closest any doctor can come to identifying the strange walking disease that afflicts Tim Farnsworth, a high end New York lawyer with a happy suburban wife and daughter. One day he just picks up, leaves home, and walks until he collapses.into sleep. As do most lawyers, he carries a Blackberry and ATM card so he can contact his wife for a ride home or take a cab when he recovers the next day. But then it happens again…and again…and again.
At first, his wife drops everything to find him. His partners reschedule around his absences, and his teenage daughter thinks that he is whacko. But his walking is not so “benign.” Since he is out and about in all weather, he develops frostbite, cuts, and bruises. The disease not only causes his body to walk, but also to throw off clothing as he goes. His mind indeed starts to go as his conscious desire to stop fights against his unconscious body wanting to walk. In time, Farnsworth only wants a solid medical diagnosis (a name) to prove to those around him that he is really sick…even if there is no cure.
“At first his body was subject only to little local breakdowns, to infections and inflammations, to aches, cricks, tweaks, cramps, contusions, limps, displacements, dizziness, stiffness, chafing, agitations, confusions, staggerings, spells of low blood sugar, and the normal wear and tear of age. Yet it persisted to function more or less with an all-hands-on-deck discipline. He was certain that it had a mind of its own, an unassailable cellular will. If it were not that it needed sleep, and a bit of food, it would not need him. It would walk without him, after his mind had dimmed and died. It would walk until it collapsed into a pile of whitened and terrigenous bones.”
Ferris has created a metaphor in “The Unnamed” that allows for countless interpretations. While it is hard to hang much of a plot on only a metaphor, he is able to work this conceit very successfully into a story about the “normal” lives of his characters. To some extent the novel lives in Cheever and Updike territory as it recounts East Coast suburban family, work, and home dynamics; only instead of alcohol and infidelity undoing things, the Farnsworth happy home is undone by the unnamed walking disease.
As the disease intensifies, Farnsworth accepts that there is no cure. He leaves his wife and daughter to avoid putting them through the horror of watching him unravel and the burden of trying to put him back together. The novel goes from Cheever to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” as Farnsworth walks west clear across the country sleeping in an Angus herd or a Midwest park or on a Wyoming mountainside.
His life is a daily battle between his mind and his body, an almost heroic battle. “During every hour there was a moment of despair…and during every day, an hour. In that hour, he resigned himself to never seeing [his family] again. But he had made some progress…and, despite quitting every day, he had not yet quit.” He maintains hope where there is no hope.
All mass events of destruction, disease, and suffering are unsettling only in the abstract when they don’t affect us personally. Even the localized pains of car wrecks or cancer tend to leave us only partly scathed. But the horror of the unnamed and unknown calamity can touch us deeply. It can indeed strike anyone, any time…and no one knows what it is or how to fix it. The value of a novel like Joshua Ferris’s “The Unnamed” is that it creates a world where these horrors are real enough that we leave it with a greater empathy for all those who suffer in silence and obscurity.