Saturday, October 1, 2011

Joshua Ferris Explores a Catastrophic Disease and Its Effect on One Man

(This interview originally appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger in January 2010)

In his breathtaking second novel “The Unnamed”(Reagan Arthur Books, $25) Joshua Ferris chronicles the life of a powerhouse corporate lawyer named Tim Farnsworth and his wife Jane. They have all the trappings of suburban success, but Tim is periodically struck by an illness that forces him to spontaneously walk for many miles, wreaking havoc on his body and eventually stripping him of family, job and sanity.

At the beginning of the novel, Tim’s disease has been in remission for several years, and Tim and Jane have gone to numerous specialists and shamans looking for a cure. At the third outbreak, Tim walks in a trance around the New York metropolitan area, exposed to the elements and waking up behind gas stations. Finally, “the walking” makes Tim go across the country, and his last desperate act is to force his brutalized and dying body to return to his wife and daughter. In “The Unnamed,” Ferris explores one man’s quest to keep his humanity while suffering the collapse of body and mind.

Ferris, 35, is the author of the acclaimed novel “Then We Came to the End.” He met with freelance writer Dylan Foley over lunch at a diner in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Q. How did you create the story of Tim Farnsworth and his devastating unnamed illness?

A. The genesis of the idea was almost entirely literary. The story that followed came from following the instincts of a writer and not the instincts of a memoirist.

Q. Your story goes high and low, where a wealthy lawyer loses everything--his possessions, his wife and child, his health. What interested you in Tim’s great fall?

A. What interested me is the precariousness of his position. There is no defense against fortune, good or bad. While Tim is enjoying the fruits of his labor that has allowed him to live comfortably, he is also sheltered from the cold winds outside. The stripping away of all the benefits and comforts of this life is merely the beginning of getting to the absolute essentials of what it means to be alive, to be a human being confronted with the worst possible circumstances of the human condition. That was where I wanted to arrive.

Q. Did you make up Tim’s disease?

A. I made it up and I made it up specifically so I would have none of the baggage accompanying other diseases that are typically thought of as being potentially psychological, like chronic fatigue syndrome. I was then freed of the constraints of the known diseases, to really have the debate of whether it was a mental or a physical problem. That was very interesting.

The hardest research I did was what happens to someone physiologically when they are exposed to the elements, what happens to the organs and whether a person could survive under certain circumstances.

Q. Tim fights a titanic battle between his own mind and body. What happens to him?

A. His mind and his body are both at odds and in harmony with each other. He wills certain things. With this will comes the return to Jane and the final physical reunion of the family. This becomes his last wish and it is the last wish of somebody who has fully woken up to life. Tim has been treated by ill fortune in great extremity. Nothing comes to him in moderation. There is a moment of control in the final scene. This moment of grace has been missing from the whole book. We think of grace as being metaphysical, but in this case it might be merely physical.

Things like the existence of the soul, the presence or lack of god, are all up for debate. Ultimately, Tim goes back and forth on these things. I have hopes that the book presents an evenhanded or ambiguous view toward whether he is correct on certain statements about god. Tim has an unnamed physical condition that makes him believe he is not in control. He starts to believe that everything is physical, so where does god come in?

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