Joshua Ferris’s first novel, Then We Came to the End (Little, Brown, 2007), is a laugh-out-loud dissection of early 21st-century cubicle culture at a Chicago advertising agency where rounds of layoffs are wreaking havoc on the psyches of the staff. Told in the first person plural, the tone of the book fits the collective consciousness of office life as snug as a cardboard sleeve on a paper coffee cup. Petty jealousy and fear are the ruling emotions. (Sample lines: “Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything. Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled.”) Critically acclaimed, Then We Came to the End was short-listed for the National Book Award.
Ferris, who worked at a Chicago ad agency (there’s an aspiring writer character in Then We Came to the End who talks of the novel he is working on that will catapult him from copywriting drone into literary stardom), has staked out unfamiliar territory in his second book, The Unnamed (Reagan Arthur, 2010). Unfamiliar to anyone, in fact. For the central conceit of the book is the bizarre illness that afflicts Tim Farnsworth, and forces him to walk against his will. Think of Tim’s disorder as a kind of restless leg syndrome on steroids. It drags him out of bed, down the stairs and out the door, without a thought to put on a hat and coat. Tim’s fevered hikes last for hours and leave him so exhausted that he falls asleep on the spot when he stops walking. (One of the book’s funnier scenes has Tim, a partner at a prestigious Manhattan law firm, walking around his office in suit and tie and backpack stuffed with items his wife, Jane, thinks he might need on his walks. Tim’s also wearing a jury-rigged bike helmet that a neurologist has kitted out with sensors to try and find the cause of the disease. And Tim’s trying to keep his illness a secret from his partners.) Tim ultimately finds normal life untenable in the face of his walking disorder and sets off on a quest which ultimately leads him inward, to struggle with philosophical questions about the relationship between the mind and body, the notion of free will, and the existence of God.
Ferris, who splits his time between homes in Brooklyn and Columbia County, will be reading with Jami Attenberg, author of The Melting Season, at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck on February 17 at 7:30pm. (845) 876-0500; www.oblongbooks.com.
How did you come to have a place in Columbia County?
I knew that I needed a place to write that was secluded and quiet, in contrast to Brooklyn. It makes it easier to be entirely focused on the work. Brooklyn is very distracting. There’s something going on very late at night all the time. It feels like I’m either drunk or hungover when I’m in Brooklyn. I stay much more sober and efficient upstate. I’m being a little facetious. It’s really about the solitude and the pace of life, which is nurturing for a writer.
Why invent a disease? Why not use one that readers might already be familiar with?
I wanted to write about disease unencumbered by preconceived ideas. I felt that a disease that was entirely invented would allow access to the pure emotions and circumstances surrounding a diseased person. Pre-existing diseases carry baggage. When you hear cancer, you also hear chemo, radiation, metastasis. When you hear heart condition, you hear genetic predisposition.
When you were researching the book, were there certain diseases you were attracted to?
I’m attracted to all diseases, they’re fascinating. Most of us are going to have to bravely face one. The ones I’m most attracted to are the ones that fall between the medical cracks—diseases like fibromyalgia and Epstein-Barr. Or something more exotic like Morgellen’s, which is believed to be a rare dermatological disease. Sufferers believe it is a fiber-like organism that crawls just underneath their skin. They itch through their skin and their lives are essentially destroyed by it. But the medical community is very divided as to whether Morgellen’s is a separate disease from documented diseases. These types of diseases fall through the cracks and sufferers don’t feel that they get the legitimacy that someone with a clear-cut disease gets. It’s lonely. The suffering is made lonelier by this. The mental anguish is compounded by its unknowability. That was another reason I found it important to invent a disease.
The oddity surrounding Tim’s unnamed walking sickness almost feels like a piece out of science fiction.
I would press against the science fiction classification because I think the world of rare diseases is so bizarre and contains multitudes. Tim’s disease is invented, but it’s not farfetched. I think a reader will personalize the disease somewhat, but it shouldn’t be taken as a metaphor. The disease is walking. What does the walking stand for? The walking stands for walking.
It seems to me that the book ultimately boils down to an exploration of the struggle between mind and body.
The important thing to remember is that the disease is real and Tim suffers from it. How he deals with it, eventually, is to go insane to some extent and wage battle against his body. He takes the position that his mind is made of nobler stuff and his body is dumb matter which he can’t control and which he feels is the degraded aspect of life on earth. The novel can be seen to some extent as the recognition by one man of his physical limitations and his search for a way out of those limitations. If Tim is merely a physical being, if he’s only an animal, a piece of meat, then the soul goes away. And with the soul, any chance of immortality, and with immortality, any notion of heaven, and God. The trouble he is having with the distinction between the mind and the body is sort of intricately caught up in this question he has with God. Tim comes to certain conclusions, but their sober-eyed conclusions, they’re not necessarily hopeful conclusions.