Fiction – paperback; Viking; 320 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Imagine if you were afflicted with a disease that defies medical explanation, a disease that compels you to drop everything and just walk… and walk… and walk until you become so mentally and physically exhausted you just fall asleep wherever you find yourself — in a snowy field, a parking lot, behind a fast food outlet or on a stranger’s front porch. That’s what happens to Tim Farnsworth, the protagonist, in this deliciously different novel, the second by New York-based writer Joshua Ferris.
When the book opens, Tim is in his late 40s and “ageing with the grace of a matinee idol”. He’s a rich, successful partner in one of New York’s leading law firms and is happily married to Jane, with whom he has a teenage daughter, Becka.
But Tim has a secret. He has an unnamed disease which no amount of traditional or alternative medical help has been able to understand much less cure. In fact, no one seems to know whether it’s a legitimate medical disorder or a mental illness. Even Tim wonders whether he is losing the plot when the compulsion to go on a walk hits him, but there is nothing he can do to stop it. (These walks can last from a few hours, to days, to weeks and even months.)
The only saving grace is that the disease occurs in episodes, often years apart, and when it reappears they put time-tested procedures into place to ensure he doesn’t walk off, never to be found again: he carries a backpack containing vital necessities, including warm clothing and a GPS, with him at all times; Jane and Becka take turns to babysit him; and when things get especially bad he is handcuffed to the bed.
Despite this, Tim insists on holding down a demanding full-time job (as a litigator in a murder trial), although it’s not long before his employers lose patience with his unscheduled disappearances. Similarly, Jane finds the situation stressful and upsetting, often having to get up in the middle of the night to collect Tim from his latest compulsive walk miles and miles from home.
Ups and downs over 20 years
I won’t say much more about the plot other than it charts Tim’s life over the space of some 20 years and details the impact of his condition of colleagues, clients and family.
What I will say is just how much I enjoyed reading this book (I read it in one sitting having taken a day off work to get over a rather horrible chesty cold). The narrative is fast-moving and interweaves Tim’s medical problems with a murder trial that has an element of danger to it. The characterisation is superb, especially as each of the Farnsworths changes and develops over time (Tim loses his cocksure lawyerly arrogance, Jane loses her ability to cope, Beckah emerges out of her Goth-like teenage phase).
And to cap it all off, there’s plenty of “issues” to chew over, including office politics, how work can rule our lives but also give meaning to it, our perception of mental illness, the conflict between body and soul, and how families deal with complicated, life-threatening medical problems.
At times the book is emotional, without being overly sentimental, but it’s also thrilling (where will Tim’s walks lead to next? what dangers will he confront?) and incredibly witty (especially the bit about the bicycle helmet — and the dead toe).
But ultimately The Unnamed is a romance between two people, thrust into an extraordinary situation that tests their love to the limits. It’s also a lovely story about the relationship between fathers and daughters (the scenes in which Tim and 17-year-old, overweight Becka bond as they watch DVD boxed sets of Buffy are especially touching — and witty).
And, finally, I can’t write an entire review without mentioning the similarities with Audrey Niffenegger’s Time Traveler’s Wife, although I’m sure I won’t be the first person to do so: a husband, afflicted by an unexplainable medical condition, disappears without warning for long periods of time while his dutiful wife waits patiently for his unannounced return.