Saturday, December 25, 2010
The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris.....
Tim Farnsworth is an attorney, husband, and father. He suffers from an affliction that is baffling and frustrating because its very existence cannot be confirmed or refuted by medical professionals of any kind. His affliction is a strange compulsion to walk, and when it strikes, Tim is incapable of controlling himself. He takes off on walks of many, many miles, not able even to take the time to grab warm clothing. (The book is set in New York.) He therefore also suffers from frostbite (I found the scene in which he pulled off his sock and found his little toe rolling around "like a raisin" particularly disturbing) and other ailments associated with long periods of exposure to the elements. Tim cannot choose his destination or even his path, for the most part, and at the end of a long walk, he collapses into a deep sleep. When he awakens he calls his wife, Jane, who dutifully comes to get him. No book would be complete without a surly teenager, of course. The daughter is only vaguely described as being overweight and wearing dreadlocks. At one point in the novel Jane hires her daughter to follow her father in the event he goes on one of his walks, and when he does, she tearfully tells him, "I'm sorry I didn't believe you."
I was mesmerized by Tim's strange condition and curious to see how it would play out. However, I grew a little bored and impatient at those times in the book when the narration took on a stream of consciousness feel. It became uncomfortable to read at those times; I wanted to skip forward and see what HAPPENED. Other parts of the book were frustrating to me as well. Tim is hospitalized on a few occasions, and he never has identification on him. Yet he routinely goes to ATMs and withdraws seemingly large sums of money.
While it became tedious at times and the resolution not what I would have hoped for (don't read this book if you're curious about the etiology of this strange affliction - it ain't there), I didn't consider reading it a waste of time. It did provoke some reflection and consideration about the nature of illnesses and how people react to them.
When Tim lies and says his wife has cancer in an effort to explain his absences from his law firm, he is treated with sympathy and understanding. When he makes an attempt to explain his own condition, however, he is met with scorn and condescension.
Which leads me to wonder about the nature of medicine and science in society. If a disease is unnamed and untreatable, the sufferer is assumed to be afflicted with some sort of MENTAL illness, and Lord knows that isn't dealt with in our society very well. In this book Tim Farnsworth ultimately relies on medicines used to treat psychosis, but it reminds me of the chicken-and-the-egg question. Was his illness psychotic in nature from the beginning, and it manifested itself in a strange compulsion to take off walking (even in the middle of a courtroom hearing)? Or did the strangeness of the illness, coupled with the lack of understanding even from those closest to him, make him BECOME psychotic? Did his craziness make him start walking, or did the walking drive him crazy?
It makes me wonder about the large number of people we tend to lump together into one group as if they were a single population, the mentally ill. I'm guessing there are as many different mental illnesses as there are physical ones. How many of those mental illnesses are classified as such only because we lack the inability to diagnose or even recognize the physical symptoms?
I apologize for the very un-Christmasy topic tonight. I just finished the book a couple of days ago and wanted to write about it before I forget.
On a completely unrelated note: Can you still call it a white Christmas if it didn't happen until about 5:00 PM? If so, we are experiencing the first white Christmas I can remember in my lifetime.
Y'all can have your snow back if you want it.