Now 35, living outside of Hudson, New York with his wife and child, Joshua Ferris entered a very small club of young, accomplished novelists on the basis of his critically acclaimed first novel, Then We Came to the End. When he learned that his debut had been nominated for a 2007 National Book Award, Ferris already had “a full head of steam” on his second book, which has just been published.
The Unnamed is the story of an affluent Manhattan attorney who suffers from a mysterious recurring disease that compels him to walk. He walks, no matter the weather, until his body is so exhausted that he drops to the ground in a heavy sleep. He insists the affliction is not in his head, yet it can’t be controled – he has to be physically constrained to stop walking. Inventing a wholly fictional disease for Tim, Ferris has used the skeleton of a medical mystery to build in inquiry into larger questions of illness, of family, of suffering and of what it means to be human. I interviewed Ferris over the phone in December 2009; what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. –-Carolyn Kellogg
Barnes & Noble Review: Tim is an affluent, driven attorney at a high-powered firm in Manhattan. Do you see him as a particularly New York character?
Joshua Ferris: I suppose that the trappings of life indicate that he is a particular type of character that may be only found in New York, or might have counterparts in London or other places. He clearly has all of the status markers of somebody who exists most fervently in New York. I would say it was a deliberate construction of that character. Everything is at a high level. Life is lived at as an aggressive, successful pitch as possible.
BNR: But he’s not so focused on his work that he hasn’t picked up other trappings, like his family. He has a beautiful wife, Jane, who is devoted to him –
JF: I would hope that that undercuts what you might think of as a stereotypical character. He has been, for the most part, a devoted family man, in contrast with a couple other characters in the book, that manage to be as high-octane as he is, but don’t do so well on the family front. He’s the exception – they’re limited to one child, but he’s done his best with her, and he’s still as successfully married as one can be after 20 years. That’s an important counterbalance to the overriding professionalism that defines, more or less, his identity. It presents a fuller picture than the one we might consider when we’re walking past someone, on 50th Street or Fifth Avenue, who looks like he fits the bill as a high-powered attorney in New York City.
BNR: The illness in the book interrupts his ability to be a successful attorney. Where did the shape of that condition come from?
JF: One of the things that I aspired to was to write something with a fantastical premise, but to always keep it very well rooted to the real world. Everybody knows what it means when you say “magical realism” – there’s nothing magical realist about The Unnamed, but I would say it is, to some extent, a realist magic. I wanted the book to be very believable – but at its heart, it is high-concept invention. I had to work very hard to establish the ground rules in order to make believable this walking disease, which doesn’t exist in the medical literature, or anywhere except in my head. The ground rules were important, establishing a texture, a tone that was very respectful of the disease, yet at the same time, pressing hard on him, through the people in his life, to try to confront the possibility that the disease was a mental breakdown of sorts. I could then have a debate about disease in general, about the extent to which a disease is physical, mental or a combination of both. That was important to me, and that was intriguing. But what was most important was to find the right tone with which to tell a fanciful conceit about real people.
BNR: Much of Tim’s trauma is played out in how it affects his family. In that way, it’s a detailed domestic drama like we might find in Cheever or Yates, even though the pressure is supplied by this unreal disease. Were you consciously bringing together different literary genres?
JF: I was thinking very much about it. I think it’s an overriding preoccupation. I was not interested in writing merely a domestic drama, and I wasn’t interested in writing simply the story of a medical mystery. The combination that emerged as I was writing became a far more compelling path to take than what I had initially conceived.
It was very one note for a long time, and trying to figure out all of the ways in which sickness – especially one that remains unresolvable, like Tim’s – ricochets across a man’s life, that became the real source of the book’s animating force.
It seems at every turn, when you’re talking about disease, or reading about it in an article, everyone is obsessed with finding the physical underlying cause of any given disorder. Even if you were able to do that, it doesn’t take away its mystery, and it doesn’t take away the essential nature of the suffering that the victim experiences.
Take a disease like schizophrenia. We now have medicines for it. It can be remedied, to some extent, and the sufferer be made better and functioning. That medicine is working on a physical level. So a disease that we typically think of as a mental disorder is a more refined physical disorder. We’re finding out that if you inhibit certain neural transmitters, or supplement the brain in some way, then you get what we call “normal” or “functioning” behavior. I started thinking, “What about a disease that can’t be reduced to any kind of physical solution?”
By inventing a disease and making it uncurable and undiagnosable, I was able to strip away the expectations that the reader might have if I had given them an identifiable disease, and talk on a much more fundamental level about the Platonic notion of disease and the way in which it affects people’s lives. Not only with respect to other people – namely their family, friends – and their professional lives, the way they’ve constructed themselves, how they think of themselves, their identity. But also the ways in which it really starts to mess with one’s head; it could very easily lead one to become mad.
So often, diseases happen, and then, as a corollary, you get depressed. This is called co-morbidity, in medicalese. And you have to think the reason for the depression is because the disease, the illness, whatever it might be, is very destructive. Even if it’s not a death sentence, it’s disruptive. Ultimately, what it came down to was if you can’t reduce everything to the physical, you can start talking about things like the soul, and God, and where does punishment come from, and relief. If you’re made to act in ways you don’t want to act because your body is rebelling, for untold reasons, where do you find solace? What kind of character do you need to contend with unforeseen forces that could, easily destroy your life. It became a much larger question, and those larger questions played into the smaller questions of the domestic drama.
BNR: Major books by nonfiction writer Oliver Sacks and novelist Richard Powers, among others, identify many aspects of human personality with brain chemistry. How does your book fit in with recent literature of science and the brain?
JF: That literature typically presupposes a reductionist view, a physicalist view of the mind and the body. In some cases, it’s highlighted in red. In other cases, with Oliver Sacks I think, you have to read him enough to understand that underlying every point he’s making is the death of the traditional notion of the soul. It can be very dismaying. The advances that have been made, and the alleviation of suffering that has resulted from those advances, are positive and good. But a strictly reductive and positivist notion of the body and of the mind can be dismaying to the humanist. To somebody who believes, or at least wishes to believe, that a human being is a more complex and serious creation than a diagram of some aspect of brain chemistry.
A lot of this is informing me as I’m writing about someone with a disease. Because I resist that reductionist notion. I don’t necessarily think it’s wrong, but I think we need a robust defense of at least the mysterious experience of illness. It seems to me that when a scientist or a medical doctor or a philosopher says, well, Descartes is over, the mind/body problem has been solved and we know that everything is located in the brain and we should celebrate, it seems to have missed the point. We don’t yet have subtle enough tools to alleviate all suffering, and the mystery is far too great – the confoundedness of disease; it brings me back to the soliloquy in Hamlet, “What a piece of work is man.”At the end of it, he says, “to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” There are two poles — one says we’re just this machine, and the other says, what a piece of work is man. I did not want to come down on one side or the other. It’s possible that this poor guy, with enough research and enough time, could have solved his problem — but essentially, the mystery at the heart of his entire being can never be solved.
BNR: At some levels, his illness is a puzzle, and a plot force. And it’s also kind of a metaphor for his struggle to be who he is; it’s been there and he has to come to a peace with it, in one way or another. He has to find a way to be the person who can live with this illness, which can serve as a metaphor to how we must reconcile ourselves to our own most unwelcome characteristics.
JF: This is the reason that he is where no man wants to be. He has professional obligations and duties, and obligations to his family, and he’s hanging out behind grocery stores, because that’s where the walk ends. I was with a friend the other day who said, “I think it’s really important to say yes to life, but with serious reservations.” I think that’s true, and I think those serious reservations have come home to roost in this particular man, and they’re put into relief because he has on paper a very successful and happy life. And in a man who is accustomed to getting his way, who has a lot of resources at his disposal, and a lot of support from his family, this man is ultimately forced to leave all of that by something out of his control — that relevant question is burning.
That was my greatest hope for the book – that it came to a place where the most pressing questions about what it means to be human, what it means to be heroic in the face of evisceration, and whether or not this particular character could muster the resources to do something in spite of his illness. All of these things became pertinent. I kept going back to the quote by Albert Camus, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” That was a kind of challenge, as I was writing the book, because clearly this is kind of Sisyphean disease — its very recurrent nature makes it such. I had to wonder, Is this particular man going to find a way to be happy? And what is it going to be about – his career, his physical comfort, his family?
BNR: While you’ve been talking about big ideas, it’s also a brutally physical book. One of the remedies for Tim’s illness has been to bind him to a bed, so he can’t get up and walk away, and it’s terrible for him and everyone around him. As a writer, what’s it like to put your characters through that?
JF: By forcing him into the worst physical circumstances, you not only recognize the dramatic turn his life has taken, but you also recognize that he has to ask very tough questions. Even as far removed as many Americans are from having to tend to the basic necessities of life, like shelter and food – this is a man that is reduced to those essential questions: where is my shelter going to come from, where is my food going to come from, will I be protected from the elements? Those questions are the most urgent ones to ask of humans – for a writer, for me, because they lead to the questions of meaning, death, the other even larger questions. So I had to take him to extremes. I had to go there.
He has to make a certain decision about how to live a compromised life. When you have a compromised life, how do you make room for the more mundane domestic obligations that made up your prior life?
BNR: As the book moves into its later sections, his travels take him further and further from New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, where it began; he’s searching for ways to be human and finds some genuine beauty.
Did your own travels, such as your stay at the writing colony Ucross in Wyoming, inform those that Tim takes?
JF: Not only was Ucross there to provide a total contrast – Ucross, the little travel I did Wyoming and Idaho – so sterling, so clean, a very different experience from everything I’d ever had. Such a beautiful part of America. Every other day I want to move out there on a permanent basis.
But I had also moved out of New York – I had moved upstate, about two hours, and I found a small house that was wonderfully secluded. I had started to write fairly aggressively. Winter moved in – the Hudson had frozen with various creaking ice flows, the branches had all gone cold, very crystalline … I was struck by the silence, in particular – especially compared to the noise and the grit of the city. It was important as I moved Tim through increasingly grim, homogenized America, that I not forget that there still existed these beautiful places, these little havens of silence, a kind of exaltation. That was the geographical ambiguity of the book, that happily matched the ambiguity of the disease.
BNR: While it’s Tim’s story, his travails are also his family’s, particularly his wife, Jane’s. His illness eventually affects her as deeply as it affects him.
JF: If she had not been given voice, I think she would have just been another long-suffering wife. She struggles not only with his sickness, but with the extent to which she wants to sacrifice her life on the altar of it. She emerges, I think, as the person who is really struggling with the tension between duty and freedom. That’s something that Tim doesn’t have the choice to make – or if he does, he isn’t really aware of it. She is aware of it, and the degree to which she chooses one over the other is always in flux. She gave me more license to write about free will than Tim. Tim is, more or less, going to do what Tim’s body tells him to do. She has freedom to stand up and walk out.
BNR: You’ve talked about humanism, free will, the soul – what do you think fiction can do in exploring these issues? In our contemporary culture, I wonder if we don’t explore them quite enough.
JF: My guess is that we don’t. The corollary to that is that there are those writers that do. Only there can we find the ambiguity and the palpable experience, the curiosity, that the culture – especially the scientific culture – wants to close out. Ambiguity is the enemy of science, but it is the predominant emotional factor – and very frequently, the predominant physical factor – in our lives. It’s that which fiction captures unlike anything else. And it’s that which makes fiction continually relevant. It is why we go to fiction, it is why we admire fiction writers who are able to capture the world and fix in on the page in a sustained, thought-provoking, moving way. It is a contrarian impulse, that a fiction writer has, against the culture, against other fields whose entire goals is to remove equivocation and drain mystery out – so that either medicine can be on the market, or a produce can be advertised to assuage whatever itch you might have. This is, in large part, fiction’s purpose, as it goes mano-a-mano against the culture. I think its first and foremost purpose is to experience joy, but it also does this important work.
BNR: What writers explore this ambiguity in ways that inspire you, that feed the ideas you’re dealing with in The Unnamed?
JF: John Haskell did it in American Purgatorio; Rivka Galchen did it in Atmospheric Disturbances – ambiguity and being human are constantly at the forefront of these books. One of the greatest examples of this is Don Delillo’s White Noise. And the questions can be traced back to the Romantic poets, to Wordsworth, asking “What is God? What is the mind? What is this body that I have, and what is it used for?” Delillo asks a lot of questions about transcendence, and death, the ultimate meaning of life. Those are a couple of examples; there are so many others – Edward Jones, George Saunders, able to capture every experience in 5,000 words. That’s a small miracle.