The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

Tim Farnsworth is a successful lawyer, middle-aged but still good-looking, enjoying his beautiful house, his teenaged daughter and frequent trips abroad with his lovely wife Jane, when he discovers that while he has taken his easy life for granted, everything has changed.  "The Unnamed" opens with the second recurrence of his puzzling disease, an unbearable compulsion to start walking and not stop for hours.

The first time this happened, he and his wife consulted doctors around the world in search of “The One Guy” who understood his unique condition.  Though they tried everything, even strapping Tim to a hospital bed for weeks at a time, nothing worked.  Then one day, for no reason he could discern, he just stopped walking, and life seemed to be back to normal. Now, years later, it’s started again.

The reader’s anxiety mounts as Tim initially tries to hide his condition from his law partners – he excuses his frequent, unexplained absences by telling them Jane is suffering from cancer – and we see him walking obsessively.  Night after night, through the bitter cold of a New York winter, he trudges the streets and roads of the city and its suburbs, finally dropping down into sleep in back alleys, snowy fields, or places more dangerous.  Jane puts together an emergency backpack that he wears constantly, so that when he has to start walking he at least has some warm clothes and a cell phone he can use to call her once he stops.

But this time, his disease gets the better of him.  He is stripped of his partnership at the law firm, Jane starts drinking heavily, his constant walking results in terrible health consequences – and then, again, inexplicably, he stops.  Picking up their lives, Tim and his wife get rid of the too-big house and the too-demanding job and put together a new life in a brownstone in the city.  His wife is a successful realtor, Tim teaches part-time, and they enjoy the careful pleasures of a well-worn routine.  Until, one day, Tim calls his wife and says simply, “It’s back.”

The second half of the book chronicles Tim’s fight with himself, as part of him longs to stop walking and the other part can’t stop, despite frostbite, illnesses, and estrangement from his family.  His harrowing journey takes him across the country and back again, arguing and fighting with himself as he goes.

 This was a difficult book to read, but I found it entirely compelling, and its themes and questions haunted me for weeks after I finished it.   It would make a great book group title, because there’s so much to talk about:  the recurring use of extreme weather conditions as Tim’s condition becomes more extreme; the question of whether his behavior is a physical or a mental condition, and whether the distinction even matters; the classic mind-body conundrum; the ups and downs of a long marriage; the effects of disease on the patient and the family; the way a comfortable upper middle class life can plunge into the depths of poverty, illness and despair; and on and on.  I loved Ferris’s first book, the well-received “Then We Came to the End,” which is told with a lighter touch but also ends sadly.  I’ll look forward, with some trepidation, to his next book.

An interview with the author is here.  The book trailer is below.