Tracking A Man's Life, In Endless Footsteps

Author Joshua Ferris i i

Joshua Ferris' debut novel, Then We Came to the End, about a Chicago advertising agency, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Nina Subin hide caption

itoggle caption Nina Subin
Author Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris' debut novel, Then We Came to the End, about a Chicago advertising agency, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Nina Subin

Imagine you're sitting in a meeting at work, or at home eating dinner with your family, when suddenly you feel the need to walk. Not to stretch your legs or get some air, but to walk compulsively, uncontrollably and without stopping, for miles and miles until you collapse from exhaustion.

Tim Farnsworth, the main character in The Unnamed, the new novel from Joshua Ferris, is a partner in a high-powered law firm in Manhattan. He is married with a young daughter. And he cannot stop walking. According to Ferris, Tim's condition "is more of a disease than a compulsion."

"It's not really a feeling he has to walk, but really his body overtaking him and forcing him to walk," Ferris tells Melissa Block. Ferris' book delves into the question of whether Tim's condition is psychological or physical. But ultimately, the author says, "it concludes more or less that this is something he's simply not in control of."

Book Cover of 'The Unnamed'

He certainly can't control when he is struck by a need to start walking. One of the early episodes comes in the evening, when Tim is taking out the garbage, dressed for bed:

He walked past neighbors' houses, he walked barefoot down Route 22. He walked past the supermarket: empty parking lot and an eerie glow. He walked past the Korean Baptist church and the Saks-anchored mall into the dreams of late-night drivers who took home the image of some addled derelict in a cotton robe menacing the soft shoulder. He looked down at his legs. It was like watching footage of legs walking from the point of view of the walker. That was the helplessness, this was the terror: the brakes are gone, the steering wheel has locked. I am at the mercy of this wayward machine.
The Unnamed
By Joshua Ferris
Hardcover, 320 pages
Reagan Arthur Books
List price: $24.99

Read An Excerpt

Tim seeks out all sorts of medical remedies for his condition, from submitting to tests at the Mayo Clinic to taking bat-wing extract. But nothing can be determined.

"It's unnamed, it's undiagnosable, it's essentially uncurable," Ferris says. "It's recurring and remitting, so he has long stretches of time in which he's not afflicted, and over the course of the book, you see one of these sections and understand one of the ways Tim and, I think, sick people in general, re-embrace life and recognize that which has been taken away from them when their sickness hits."

But the effects of the sickness are brutal. Often, Tim's episodes hit during cold weather, and to keep him from wandering off, never to be found, his wife prepares a survival backpack, complete with a GPS device and energy bars.

"He has no control over where his body is taking him," Ferris says. "And he has no control over where, eventually, his body will release him. And when it releases him, he has no energy to do anything but collapse in exhaustion. So it falls to his wife to take care of him and pick him up wherever he might be."

Dreaming Up The Disease

With any number of terrible real-life diseases to choose from, how did Ferris decide that walking would be Tim's plague?

"I wanted to talk about sickness without any of those pre-existing cures or sources of alleviation," he says. "When we think of cancer, radiation and chemotherapy come to mind. I wanted to strip down this character to the barest essentials and see what happens when sickness can't go away and it can't be answered by all of the medical technology that the country has at its disposal."

And Ferris hopes the unnameable quality of Tim's disease ensures that readers don't bring any preconceptions to the book.

"Ideally, you would look at this as the essence of sickness distilled to its purest form and discover what that really means — what it really means not only to be an individual who suffers from this completely debilitating disease, but also a family who has to struggle the uncertainties of it and all of its demands," Ferris says.

But the disease takes its toll. Tim walks away from his family and professional life, and into elements that prove merciless. He suffers from frostbite. And though he experiences moments of redemption, his life spirals downward. Ferris says he knew the end-point of Tim's grim trajectory from the start.

"I wanted to track the length of a man's life, and I also knew that this was going to be, at a certain point in time, an unremitting disease, so he would be stuck with it for life," Ferris says.

He says he realized early in the writing process that Tim's story probably wasn't "going to end happily." But Ferris hopes that elements of the book "alleviate that relentlessness for the reader. I think some grace notes that are given to each of the characters, that, while maybe not happy in a conventional sense, do bestow some sense of grace upon them."

The place where Tim's long, tiring journey would come to an end actually came to Ferris early in the writing process, he says. But he had to wait for inspiration to strike before he could actually write the book's final pages.

That inspiration arrived on a trip with his father to Home Depot.

"I wrote it on my BlackBerry because I knew exactly what I wanted to say at that point," and, Ferris says, because "I'm always completely useless in Home Depot."

Once he was finished, what was it like to leave the character behind? Ferris says that though the occasional grace notes helped him, watching Tim Farnsworth struggle through the end of the book was difficult. But he says leaving Tim the way he left him "was essential" for both the character and the writer himself.

"Whenever you work on a novel for a number of years, it's difficult to relinquish," Ferris says. "But here, in particular given the circumstances, I think that I felt a particular closeness to him because of his suffering. And I knew that I was done, but I wanted to keep going back and making sure that it was perfect. So it was tough to leave him."

Excerpt: 'The Unnamed'

The Unnamed
The Unnamed
By Joshua Ferris
Hardcover, 320 pages
Reagan Arthur Books
List price: $24.99

THE FEET, MECHANICAL

1

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. The long- term debate about changing weather was put aside for immediate concern for the elderly and the shut-ins, while the children went weeks without school. Deliveries came to a halt and the warehouses clogged up on days the planes were approved to land. There were lines at the grocery store, short tempers, a grudging toward the burden of adjustment. Some clever public services addressed the civic concerns — heat shelters, volunteer home checks. The cold was mother of invention, a vengeful mother whose lessons were delivered at the end of a lash.

The ride home was slow going because of the snow and the traffic. He usually worked by eyelet light but this evening he brought no work home and sat in one quadrant of the car without file opened or pen in hand. They were waiting for him. They didn't know they were waiting for him. The driver had on 1010 WINS, traffic and transit on the ones. Somewhere, out to sea or in the South, it might not be snowing. Here it slanted into the windshield like white ash from a starburst. The frostbite had returned to his fingers and toes. He unbuckled the seat belt and leaned over, stretching his long torso across the backseat, and what the driver thought he didn't care. The sound of the radio faded as one ear was sealed up by the distressed leather and he put a hand on the floor mat and ran his tingling fingertips over the fibertrapped pebbles. He hadn't called to tell them. He had lost his phone. They were waiting for him, but they didn't know it.

The driver woke him when they reached the house.

He was going to lose the house and everything in it. The rare pleasure of a bath, the copper pots hanging above the kitchen island, his family — again he would lose his family. He stood just inside the door and took stock. Everything in it had been taken for granted. How had that happened again? He had promised himself not to take anything for granted and now he couldn't recall the moment that promise had given way to the everyday. It was not likely one single moment. He set his keys on the table below the mirror and uncharacteristically took his shoes off on the long Persian runner, which he and Jane had bought in Turkey. They had spent a week in Turkey and a week in Egypt. They always had a trip in the works. Their next trip was a Kenyan safari but it would have to be postponed now. He walked through the house in his socks. Inside the kitchen he ran his hand along the dimly lit countertop. He loved his kitchen, the antique cupboard doors, the Moroccan tile backsplash. He walked through the dining room, where they hosted dinner parties for his firm. The long table sat twelve. He reached the stairs and put his hand on the oak newel and took one step after another. Family photographs made the ascent with him. The sound of the grandfather clock ticking away in the living room gave way to the television laughter issuing softly from the bedroom down the hall.

Jane was still beautiful. She was wearing a pair of reading glasses that had a Pop Art zaniness of character, teardrop frames polka- dotted with drops of primary color. Spaghetti straps revealed her slender arms and the nightgown held her firm breasts in place just below a freckled slate and an articulated clavicle. She was doing the crossword. Whenever she got stuck, she glanced up at the late show on the flat screen mounted to the wall and drummed the pen between upper and lower teeth, as if to waken her brain. She looked at him as he entered, surprised to see him home so early. "Hello, banana," she said. He took off his suit coat as if it were a T- shirt, thrusting the back over his head and turning his sleeves inside out. Then he found himself grabbing the hem, a hand on each half of the parted tail, and ripping the thing in two. Hard to break the seam at first, but once the first thread snapped, it went. Jane opened her mouth but nothing came out. He dropped the tattered coat and climbed onto the bed and hunkered down on his hands and knees like a man waiting for an explosion. "What is it?" she said. "Tim, what is it?" His head was lost inside his sheltering arms. "Tim?" She moved over to him and put her arms around him, hugging him from above as if they were about to engage in a wrestling match. "Tim?"

He told her that he had been forced out of the building and into the street. At 43rd and Broadway he hailed a cab, which he hoped would take him back to the office. After getting the cab to pull over, he reached out and opened the back door. But then he walked on. The driver, a Sikh in a pink turban, honked the horn, staring at him through the rearview mirror. Why would someone hail a cab and open the door only to keep walking? Near Union Square he had tried to call an ambulance, a recourse they had envisioned during his last recurrence. He was on the line with a dispatcher trying to explain the situation when he slipped on a patch of ice coming off a curb and lost his grip. "My phone!" he cried out as he regained his balance. "Somebody! My phone!" He walked on with a tweaked back. "Please get my phone!" Everyone ignored him. His BlackBerry had landed in the middle of the street where it lay defenseless against oncoming cars. He kept moving forward. He told her of all the city scaffolding he walked under, the manic traffic he managed to avoid, the parade of oblivious people he passed. He told her that he had turned tired in the old way by the time he reached a bench, somewhere near the East River, where his body gave out. How he had crumpled up his suit coat for a pillow and taken off his tie, sweating despite the cold. How he woke up in horror an hour later.

"It's back," he said.

From The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. Copyright 2010. Reprinted by permission of the publisher Reagan Arthur Books.

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