By Joshua Ferris
Reagan Arthur Books, 2010
Every once in a while, involuntarily, Tim Farnsworth leaves whatever he’s doing and starts walking. The walks usually last more than a few hours but less than a day. He is equally powerless to stop walking or decide where he’s going. The walks are generally unidirectional, so, since he works in Manhattan, he ends up in New Jersey a lot. When the walk is over he collapses from exhaustion, but is usually lucid long enough to call and give his location to his wife Jane, who comes to take him home. His condition goes into remission, and years pass without the walks, but during a relapse he’ll go on a walk every day or two, making it impossible for him to keep working.
The Unnamed begins on the first day of the third manifestation of Tim’s condition. He leaves work and walks all afternoon. That evening he gets home to Jane. “It’s back,” he says, and the miserable resignation at the heart of their marriage, and by extension the novel, sets in. During the first two terms of his condition, Tim and Jane went all over the globe to neurologists, psychologists, even a nutritionist or two, to search for a diagnosis. No one ever figured it out. Many doctors implied that Tim was crazy. Others thought he was faking it. Some just shook their heads and referred him to someone else. So at this point, when it comes back again, Tim and Jane have no choice but to endure it, with the certainty and frustration that it will just keep happening and they will never know why.
As a reader, I understand this feeling. Surely the walking means something. Surely it’s a stand-in for the great central conflict of Tim’s life. Surely Tim walks – at least in Ferris’s mind – because he doesn’t want to be married or doesn’t want to be a lawyer or doesn’t want to live in the suburbs. None of these things, however, seem to be the case. Ferris goes to great pains in the opening passages of the novel to show how much Tim likes his life. His wife is still beautiful and he still loves her. He’s a partner in a law firm in Manhattan and is very good at his work. He likes their house and their friends and their daughter. So, just like Tim, as the walking begins once again to monopolize his life, we readers have no idea what’s going on.
We watch as Tim’s life is slowly torn apart from the inside. He tries to continue working, but tends to leave the building and walk for hours when he should be at meetings with clients. He eventually takes a leave of absence, claiming that Jane has cancer, and has to watch a junior associate take over and then torpedo one of his major cases. At home, Jane tries to be as understanding as possible in a situation where no understanding is available. She dutifully waits for his phone calls and drives out to find him, but the worry and the unpredictability of their life leaves her despairing and resentful by turns. Not to mention that the paralysis into which Tim’s walking drives their life and marriage distracts them from parenting their sullen, overweight teenage daughter Becka, who suffers from their neglect.
So things are sad. Things are real sad. Eventually, you imagine, this sadness is going to take the shape of something that can be resolved, remedied, or rejected in the novel. Tim’s condition will either be the impetus for major change – either situational or emotional – or it will destroy everything. You wait and wait for this to happen, and the farther you get into the novel, the more you realize that maybe that’s not what Ferris is doing. A few times a new element is introduced that seems like it could become the driving force of the story. Tim and Jane’s favorite neurologist, for example, tells them there’s a new kind of brain scan they can try as a diagnostic tool. And a mysterious stranger approaches Tim with evidence that could possibly be useful in the murder trial he’s working. But both of these points are wrapped up – unsatisfactorily – within 75 pages.
Essentially, neither Dr. Sigmund Freud nor Dr. Gregory House swoop into the novel and make things plain. In the meantime, Ferris draws a skillfully poignant picture of a life, a marriage, and a family. Tim and Becka are incapable of speaking honestly to each other, but when Tim is on leave from work, they sit together for days watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Jane dutifully dresses Tim in extreme weather gear and packs him a backpack of water bottles and energy bars, waiting for the moment he’ll walk out into the winter cold and be gone for hours. They gradually cede control over their lives to the unnamed force in Tim’s body.
We all believe that we have control over our lives. If not of every detail, at least of the important things. Tim and Jane are intelligent, rational, affluent atheists who believe(d) that you can choose a life and make it work through dedication, love, and commitment. When they married they had every reason to believe that their careers and marriage would be successful. And when Tim’s condition first presented itself, they had every reason to hope that the rational explanation, although hidden, could be found. If they believed in anything, it was the tenacity of the human spirit, and its ultimate supremacy. But as Tim’s body continues to outwit not only him, but every medical expert he can find, he has to wonder if the human spirit is in control. Or if it exists at all.
“What they used to call soul. What they used to call spirit. Indivisible, complete, that thing made of mind, distinct from body.
He thought he had one – a soul, a spirit, a nature, an essence. He thought his mind was proof of it.
If mood, facial expression, hunger pain, love of color, if everything human and happenstance came not from the soul, the core of self, but from synapses firing and electrical signals, from the stuff in the brain that could be manipulated and X-rayed, what could he say about himself with any degree of certainty? Was mind just body more refined?”
The longer they go without answers, the more we witness their belief in rational explanations disappear. They start to allow room in their lives for the unknown, and while they are not particularly happy about it, they come to realize (as do we the readers, by this point) that frantically searching for one guy who could solve the mystery of Tim’s condition and give them back control was wreaking more havoc than the condition itself.
Tim and Jane are not extraordinary people. They are in the upper echelons of society, sure, but they’re not the type of one-in-a-million individuals we sometimes find at the center of novels. One never gets the sense that if anyone can beat this mysterious disease, Tim will. I believe Ferris has purposely made them ordinary so that their struggle against Tim’s condition will never be epic. It may be parable, but never myth. When Tim’s life is corroded by his walking, he doesn’t rise to become a greater man; he becomes annoyed, confused, frustrated, resigned, and philosophically disoriented.
Ferris is saying, then, that everybody has a sense of self. Tim and Jane don’t inhabit the existentially charged plane where one might find the Karamazovs discussing body, soul, and spirit over dinner, but nonetheless they implicitly believe that they preside over their own impulses, temptations, whims, and actions. Certainly we all believe that, whether we articulate it or not.
But in Tim’s life, this certainty is challenged, if not disproven. He has made commitments to his marriage, family, and career, but something – something unnamed – forces him to break his promises, to literally walk away.
Tim’s condition goes into remission again, and he and Jane enter a vigorous, carpe diem phase of life. They move into a brownstone in the city, where Tim becomes obsessed with observing the details of everyday life (there are dead bees in Bryant Park, the kebabs you can buy on the street are delicious). They meet in restaurants for lunch and have sex in the bathrooms. Tim has been demoted at the law firm because of his erratic behaviour, but he’s determined to rise again, writing summary judgments that nobody has assigned to him. They have a new conception of life, and of themselves, as fickle and unpredictable, and a new determination to cling to the good they can find.
During Tim’s last relapse, Jane had become an alcoholic, an embarrassingly tacky portion of the novel in which she leaves Tim with Becka for days at a time and goes to a Bennigan’s in Stamford to get wasted. So their idyllic life in the Manhattan brownstone, in relapse, post-rehab, is shadowed by their own doubt in their commitment to each other. Commitments are made by the conscious self, but Tim’s condition has made them question whether that self has any business making commitments:
They stared into the essential mystery of each other, but felt passing between them in those moments of silence the recognition of that more impossible mystery – their togetherness, the agreement each made that they would withstand the wayward directions they had taken and, despite their inviolable separateness, still remain.
Their wayward directions have proven to be much more than the garden variety financial burdens or temptations to infidelity. Therefore withstanding those wayward directions is a metaphysical struggle they might not control. What we are seeing is the happy life of two people who no longer believe that something will last merely because they want it to.
And it doesn’t. One day, Tim starts walking again. This time he doesn’t come back. Just like that, we’re reading a completely different novel.
Ferris never totally explains why this time around Tim doesn’t call Jane and go home at the end of his walks. Perhaps he can’t bear to put her through it again. Perhaps he senses that this time he won’t go back into remission. Or perhaps he’s tired of trying to convince himself and everyone around him that he has a mysterious unnamed condition over which he has no control. I think he just decided he can’t be crazy and sane at the same time.
As Tim feels the walking returning and leaves Manhattan for the last time, “his world had constricted to exclude everything but himself, and then was riven in two. ‘You and me,’ he cried, ‘you son of a bitch!’” So ends the sensitive, subtle portion of the novel in which Tim wrestles with the idea of the self, and begins a Gogol-esque duel between body and soul.
Tim’s sense of self, his sense of control, has been battered to the point where he can no longer simply believe that spirit (soul, mind, nature, essence) is the highest part of the self. He has to fight for its supremacy. From this point on, he refers to his body as “the other,” “the savage,” or more frequently, “the son of a bitch.” Tim spends the rest of the novel in vicious dialogue with his body. It taunts him, and forces him to walk, sleep, and eat, and he counters by clinging to the pursuits of the mind. Even as he walks, he recites his favorite portions of famous legal decisions. He buys a book on bird watching: “Name a bird and master the world. It would be a victory of brute want and dumb matter.” He claims he is waging war on his body, conquering it for his soul.
He wants to prove to his body that, even though he has no power to prevent it from walking, he can still be the higher power. “You hang on the wheel of fortune,” he says, “I rise upward on angel’s wings. You turn in the gyre. I dream of old lovers with youthful smiles.”
He refuses to let the body win, so he decides on a fight to the finish. He eschews the accommodation and adaptation that he and Jane had given his condition in previous outbreaks so that “the other” will walk itself out or he will die trying to outlast it. So he doesn’t return home between walks and only checks in with Jane every few weeks, and then months, and soon he and his condition exist alone together, walking for years. The struggles of the first half of the novel – to keep his marriage, to keep his job, to diagnose and stop his walking – make a few cameos in the second half, but are largely abandoned. Tim himself has abandoned them, unwilling to commit himself to anything until he has proven that he is in control.
Ferris is very determined to prevent you from saying “aha” and closing the book on a solved mystery. In so doing, almost nothing is resolved. By the end of the novel, Tim has been away from Jane and Becka for so long that what happens to them seems of minor importance, both to the novel and to him. The only dynamic left is Tim’s search for a conception of his self. As Ferris wisely avoids giving Tim, or the reader, the means to finally answer the questions he has spent the novel constructing, what we are left with is a painstakingly articulated mystery.
Janet Potter has worked in bookstores in Boston, Dublin, Greece, and Chicago. If you ever meet her, she will try to make you read Cloud Atlas.