Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1359
In Joshua Ferris’s novel The Unnamed, the protagonist, Tim Farnsworth, suffers from an unnamed, mysterious disease shared by no other individual in the historical record or the present: he cannot stop walking. The compulsion to walk seizes him sporadically, as if his body has a mind of its own. At the novel’s opening, Tim has just returned home to the suburbs of New York City after his disease’s first recurrence in many years. He is a partner in a successful law firm in the city, but his colleagues know nothing of his bizarre disease. Only his wife, Jane; their seventeen-year-old daughter, Becka; and a slew of perplexed doctors know the severity of Tim’s condition. When he is moved to walk, he must oblige his body’s wishes, and the walks usually last several hours before his energy expires. Tim often falls asleep wherever the walks conclude, no matter if that spot is a public parking lot, a park bench, or a grassy area behind a dumpster.
Becka was nine years old the first time her father’s illness was manifested. After Tim’s walks became more frequent and no doctor could offer successful treatment, Tim and Jane decided he should be handcuffed to their bed. Even while lying down, Tim’s feet walked circles in the air. Then the disease “left as quickly as it came.” The second time, Becka was thirteen. Tim was not well again for over a year. After the first recurrence ended, Jane became a real estate agent because
she needed a purpose not entirely predicated upon other people, loved ones, the taking care of loved ones.
Given the current order of Tim’s life, this second recurrence is incredibly ill timed. He is working a murder case that his firm cannot afford to lose. Tim’s wealthy, well-connected client, R. H. Hobbs, was accused of stabbing his wife to death, and the trial is looming. Tim tells an associate at the firm that he might be “in and out” over the next few days. He is then forced to walk away from the conversation. Hours later, Jane finds her windburned, frostbitten husband in an emergency room.
Tim’s walks continue to interfere with his job performance. He cannot tell the other partners the truth because he worries they will think he is insane. To buy some time, he lies and says that Jane’s cancer has come back, and his colleagues back off a bit.
Eventually, Tim takes a leave of absence, and R. H. Hobbs becomes the responsibility of another partner, Mike Kronish, who knows too little about the case. Just before Tim stopped working, his favorite physician, Dr. Bagdasarian, offered the Farnsworths a glimmer of hope: he designed a helmet that would read Tim’s brain activity and might supply the first physical evidence for why Tim is compelled to walk. By this point, Becka has graduated from high school. During the summer before her first semester of college, she babysits her father while her mother is at work. After Tim starts wearing the helmet, the walks stop. He loafs on the couch then decides to make an appearance at the Hobbs trial, which has been underway for weeks. Tim enters the courtroom with his helmet still on, and he tries to take a seat beside Kronish “to help.” Kronish is furious. Just after Tim asks the judge for permission to remain present for the proceedings, he is seized by a walk and exits the courtroom.
The brain scans from the helmet reveal nothing, and Tim and Jane are forced to give up their last shred of hope for better understanding or treatment of his sickness. Tim considers suicide, and he even puts a gun in his mouth, but after nearly gagging on the barrel he does not pull the trigger. Later, he fights for his life when a man attempts to rape him at the end of one of his walks. Jane picks up her bloodied husband and downs several glasses of wine when they return home.
Tim is stripped of partnership, and R. H. Hobbs is convicted of murder. Tim’s encounter with the rapist has so shaken him and his wife that they decide he must be handcuffed to the bed once more, where he walks even in his sleep. When it is Becka’s turn to watch him, Jane drinks.
Tim becomes well again and returns to work as a staff attorney, but Jane’s alcoholism does not subside. After several benders, she checks into a rehab facility. Tim picks her up when her treatment is finished. Jane has felt that their house in the suburbs is too large, especially since Becka is in college now, and they plan to move into a one-bedroom apartment in the city. After four happy years together in their new place, Tim’s sickness comes back with a vengeance. It never leaves him again. The illness becomes so strong that Tim almost splits in two: a man driven by reason and the intellect and a man driven by the disease, the walking, the body, and primordial urges. Tim, who considers himself smarter than the disease (or “the other”), often tells “it” to be quiet. He ignores his bodily cravings for food and sleep whenever possible, as if he is trying to exhaust the illness. He speaks incoherently to Jane and Becka over the phone, and he does not tell them his location.
Tim walks all the way to Missouri. He becomes delirious after months of extreme physical exertion and too little food, warmth, and sleep, but he somehow manages to reach a hospital. He is admitted to the intensive care unit and drifts in and out of consciousness for weeks. By this point, he has lost several fingers and toes to frostbite. He is eventually able to reclaim his wits, thanks to antipsychotic medication.
The following summer, Jane finds her husband at a Waffle House in the middle of nowhere, where he is suffering from a delusion that the restaurant is his law office. Tim learns that R. H. Hobbs hanged himself in prison. Despite Jane’s pleading, he refuses to leave with his wife.
Tim finally buys a cell phone and proper hiking and camping gear. He starts taking his medication regularly. He and Jane speak congenially over the phone, and he urges her to remarry. However, when Becka tells her father that her mother is seeing someone, Tim is overcome with jealousy. Later, he and Becka meet at her band’s show in Portland, and she tells him that her mother’s cancer has returned and she is dying. In an amazing feat of determination and love, he walks from Oregon to New York because he doesn’t “do cars anymore” and he must see Jane before she dies. Tim wages a war against his aging, overtaxed body, and he wins because he reaches Jane. In fact, their resumed love seems to heal her. Whenever Tim returns from a walk, he tells Jane everything he saw, and these conversations inspire him to pay greater attention to the beauty of the world. When she is released from the hospital, they move back into their old apartment, but Tim soon becomes exhausted by always walking back to this home after a forced walk concludes. He tells Jane and Becka goodbye and moves on. Becka has had a baby boy with her producer boyfriend, and the three of them live together in “domestic tranquility.” Tim keeps a photo of Jane, Becka, and the baby in his wallet at all times.
A few months later, Tim finds out from Becka that Jane has passed away. By that time, “he was paying attention, as Jane had taught him,” to the winds and birds and grasses. Becka sends him pictures from her wedding, and he maintains a sound mind and takes care of his body as best he can. Tim dies peacefully, warm inside his tent, sheltered from the cold. Before he passes, in a moment of profound contentment, he feels thankful that he will never have to rise and walk again.
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