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Tracking A Man's Life, In Endless Footsteps

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'
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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.

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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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