To get in the proper mindset for his new book, “The Unnamed,” about a man with a mysterious affliction that forces him to walk for days on end, writer Joshua Ferris strolled the streets of Brooklyn.
“I would exhaust entire days walking through sections of the borough I’d never been in,” Ferris said. “The feel of a neighborhood can drastically change in a matter of blocks — and you particularly feel that on foot.”
Of course, Ferris’s perambulations were completely voluntary. But his protagonist, Tim Farnsworth, walks unwillingly for days until his body completely gives out, leaving him exhausted, vulnerable and lost in a random location.
It’s a clever premise that Ferris makes stunningly bleak — Farnsworth is definitely not going for walks in the park. Instead, the protagonist is a cursed flaneur — doomed to walk America’s streetscapes and landscapes at the expense of his work, family, and health. Farnsworth must contend with frostbite, abusive transients and a variety of infestations and infections that accompany unwilling journeys in the elements.
Through the disease, Ferris also subjects Farnsworth’s family to endless misfortune. And readers, too. The Crown Heights-based author, whose debut novel, “And Then We Came to the End,” was a comedy about working in an advertising agency during the dot-com boom, said he wanted to write an “ambitious novel that wrestled with larger questions,” so he studied the mental anguish that accompanies chronic disease.
It doesn’t make for a rollicking good time curled up on the couch, but “The Unnamed” is a stunning page-turner, nonetheless. And though Farnsworth’s condition is entirely a Ferris creation, the author uses it as a metaphor for the larger issue of suffering.
“One really gets a sense of the enormity of the suffering that people are going through,” Ferris said. “There is a feeling of loneliness within your own wayward body.”
And Farnsworth’s misery and isolation is exacerbated by the mystery surrounding his unique affliction. Is it a real disease, or is he nuts?
“It’s like you’re a different species,” Ferris said over a beer at Der Schwarze Kolner, the new Fort Greene German beer garden near the Greenlight Bookshop, where Ferris was reading that night. “You’re a being with an affliction and you feel kicked out of the human race.
“When you’re diagnosed with an affliction the last thing you need to feel is that you’re alone. It’s the final insult,” he said, adding with a smirk, “Tim does feel alone, I don’t let him off the hook.”
By the end, Farnsworth’s humiliating fall from grace at his law firm becomes an afterthought when compared to his attempts to control his disease by strapping himself to a bed, or the horror that follows his passing out behind a sketchy gas station. And as Farnsworth’s bouts of wandering grow more severe, he becomes lost — lost within his growing neuroses, as well as further away from his home in suburban New York.
Like the disease that gives the book its title, the book itself is difficult to define. There are elements of medical mystery, crime thriller, marital drama, and towards the end, stream of consciousness, all setting the stage for the book’s elegant final page, which Ferris wrote on his Blackberry in a Home Depot.
And like the disease that forces Farnsworth to walk endlessly, “The Unnamed” achieves a momentum that makes it hard to put down. Ferris does fall prey at times to overwriting, a criticism that has been well documented in other reviews, but the intrigue created from what initially seems a harmless affliction — though not to Ferris, who hates hiking — conveys the horror of being lost lonely within one’s own body.