“The Unnamed,” the relatively new novel by Joshua Ferris, the acclaimed author of “Then We Came to the End,” was pretty much written specifically for me. It’s about Tim Farnsworth, a well-paid lawyer who works in Manhattan, lives happily in New Jersey with his wife and daughter, and is cursed with a disease that compels him to walk—and walk and walk and walk. His legs seem possessed, and whether he’s asleep at home or preparing for a court date, they’ll take control and lead him off in whatever direction for hours and hours, until at last they relent and he crawls into a corner and falls asleep, utterly drained.
It’s a potentially gimmicky story, but since Ferris is a good writer, he pulls it off, in part by not stressing the metaphors that spring easily to mind. Chief of which (at least for me) is: Is this a parable of in-built human wanderlust? What unknowable forces drive us out of our homes, away from the ones we love, and in search of what exactly?
Obviously, this is a matter of some concern to me. I love my family—they mean more to me than anything—yet I’m driven to leave home for weeks at a time. In part this is just a hazard of my profession, but I also happen to like my work quite a lot. I might even be doing this if I wasn’t actually a travel writer. The need to explore, to turn a corner into the unexplored, is just that great.
Anyway, there’s a point in the novel—spoiler alert!—where Tim, in the grip of his disease, decides simply not to return home ever again, to let his legs carry them as far as they wish, even if it means never sleeping with his wife or watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer with his daughter for the rest of his life. Years later, his wife tracks him down at a diner and pleads with him to return. He thinks for a minute, then says: “I don’t want you.”
It’s a tough moment, but a true one. For us solo wanderers, guilt is often our only companion, and I’ve often thought that it would be better for all concerned if my family were rid of me and no longer had to put up with such uncertainty. Wouldn’t it be easier if they simply knew I wouldn’t be around at all, and could just move on from there? Isn’t it selfish of me to force this insanity on them?
But inertia is a hard thing to overcome (unless you’re stricken with that unnamed disease), and such cataclysmic decisions are not in my nature. It’s actually easier if we all just go on as we are now—harried but happy—and save the tears for bigger, sadder days.