Forced Excursion: Walking as Disability in Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed




body, mental health, ecosomatic paradigm

How to Cite

Sheu, C. J. (2018). Forced Excursion: Walking as Disability in Joshua Ferris’s <em>The Unnamed</em>. M/C Journal, 21(4).
Vol. 21 No. 4 (2018): walking
Published 2018-10-15

Introduction: Conceptualizing Disability

The two most prominent models for understanding disability are the medical model and the social model (“Disability”). The medical model locates disability in the person and emphasises the possibility of a cure, reinforcing the idea that disability is the fault of the disabled person, their body, their genes, and/or their upbringing. The social model, formulated as a response to the medical model, presents disability as a failure of the surrounding environment to accommodate differently abled bodies and minds. Closely linked to identity politics, the social model argues that disability is not a defect to be fixed but a source of human experience and identity, and that to disregard the needs of people with disability is to discriminate against them by being “ableist.”

Both models have limitations. On the one hand, simply being a person with disability or having any other minority identity/-ies does not by itself lead to exclusion and discrimination (Nocella 18); an element of social valuation must be present that goes beyond a mere numbers game. On the other hand, merely focusing on the social aspect neglects “the realities of sickness, suffering, and pain” that many people with disability experience (Mollow 196) and that cannot be substantially alleviated by any degree of social change. The body is irreducible to discourse and representation (Siebers 749). Disability exists only at the confluence of differently abled minds and bodies and unaccommodating social and physical environs. How a body “fits” (my word) its environment is the focus of the “ecosomatic paradigm” (Cella 574-75); one example is how the drastically different environment of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) reorients the coordinates of ability and impairment (Cella 582–84). I want to examine a novel that, conversely, features a change not in environment but in body.

Alien Legs

Tim Farnsworth, the protagonist of Joshua Ferris’s second novel, The Unnamed (2010), is a high-powered New York lawyer who develops a condition that causes him to walk spontaneously without control over direction or duration. Tim suffers four periods of “walking,” during which his body could without warning stand up and walk at any time up to the point of exhaustion; each period grows increasingly longer with more frequent walks, until the fourth one ends in Tim’s death. As his wife, Jane, understands it, these forced excursions are “a hijacking of some obscure order of the body, the frightened soul inside the runaway train of mindless matter” (24). The direction is not random, for his legs follow roads and traffic lights. When Tim is exhausted, his legs abruptly stop, ceding control back to his conscious will, whence Tim usually calls Jane and then sleeps like a baby wherever he stops. She picks him up at all hours of the day and night.

Contemporary critics note shades of Beckett in both the premise and title of the novel (“Young”; Adams), connections confirmed by Ferris (“Involuntary”); Ron Charles mentions the Poe story “The Man of the Crowd” (1845), but it seems only the compulsion to walk is similar. Ferris says he “was interested in writing about disease” (“Involuntary”), and disability is at the core of the novel; Tim more than once thinks bitterly to himself that the smug person without disability in front of him will one day fall ill and die, alluding to the universality of disability. His condition is detrimental to his work and life, and Stuart Murray explores how this reveals the ableist assumptions behind the idea of “productivity” in a post-industrial economy. In one humorous episode, Tim arrives unexpectedly (but volitionally) at a courtroom and has just finished requesting permission to join the proceedings when his legs take him out of the courtroom again; he barely has time to shout over his shoulder, “on second thought, Your Honor” (Ferris Unnamed 103). However, Murray does not discuss what is unique about Tim’s disability: it revolves around walking, the paradigmatic act of ability in popular culture, as connoted in the phrase “to stand up and walk.” This makes it difficult to understand Tim’s predicament solely in terms of either the medical or social model. He is able-bodied—in fact, we might say he is “over-able”—leading one doctor to label his condition “benign idiopathic perambulation” (41; my emphasis); yet the lack of agency in his walking precludes it from becoming a “pedestrian speech act” (de Certeau 98), walking that imbues space with semiotic value. It is difficult to imagine what changes society could make to neutralize Tim’s disability.

The novel explores both avenues. At first, Tim adheres to the medical model protocol of seeking a diagnosis to facilitate treatment. He goes to every and any (pseudo)expert in search of “the One Guy” who can diagnose and, possibly, cure him (53), but none can; a paper in The New England Journal of Medicine documents psychiatrists and neurologists, finding nothing, kicking the can between them, “from the mind to body back to the mind” (101). Tim is driven to seek a diagnosis because, under the medical model, a diagnosis facilitates understanding, by others and by oneself. As the Farnsworths experience many times, it is surpassingly difficult to explain to others that one has a disease with no diagnosis or even name. Without a name, the disease may as well not exist, and even their daughter, Becka, doubts Tim at first. Only Jane is able to empathize with him based on her own experience of menopause, incomprehensible to men, gesturing towards the influence of sex on medical hermeneutics (Mollow 188–92). As the last hope of a diagnosis comes up empty, Tim shifts his mentality, attempting to understand his condition through an idiosyncratic idiom: experiencing “brain fog”, feeling “mentally unsticky”, and having “jangly” nerves, “hyperslogged” muscles, a “floaty” left side, and “bunched up” breathing—these, to him, are “the most precise descriptions” of his physical and mental state (126). “Name” something, “revealing nature’s mystery”, and one can “triumph over it”, he thinks at one point (212). But he is never able to eschew the drive toward understanding via naming, and his “deep metaphysical ache” (Burn 45) takes the form of a lament at misfortune, a genre traceable to the Book of Job.

Short of crafting a life for Tim in which his family, friends, and work are meaningfully present yet detached enough in scheduling and physical space to accommodate his needs, the social model is insufficient to make sense of, let alone neutralize, his disability. Nonetheless, there are certain aspects of his experience that can be improved with social adjustments. Tim often ends his walks by sleeping wherever he stops, and he would benefit from sensitivity training for police officers and other authority figures; out of all the authority figures who he encounters, only one shows consideration for his safety, comfort, and mental well-being prior to addressing the illegality of his behaviour. And making the general public more aware of “modes of not knowing, unknowing, and failing to know”, in the words of Jack Halberstam (qtd. in McRuer and Johnson 152), would alleviate the plight not just of Tim but of all sufferers of undiagnosed diseases and people with (rare forms of) disability.

After Tim leaves home and starts walking cross-country, he has to learn to deal with his disability without any support system. The solution he hits upon illustrates the ecosomatic paradigm: he buys camping gear and treats his walking as an endless hike. Neither “curing” his body nor asking accommodation of society, Tim’s tools mediate a fit between body and environs, and it more or less works. For Tim the involuntary nomad, “everywhere was a wilderness” (Ferris Unnamed 247).

The Otherness of the Body

Problems arise when Tim tries to fight his legs. After despairing of a diagnosis, he internalises the struggle against the “somatic noncompliance” of his body (Mollow 197) and refers to it as “the other” (207). One through-line of the novel is a (failed) attempt to overcome cartesian duality (Reiffenrath). Tim divides his experiences along cartesian lines and actively tries to enhance while short-circuiting the body. He recites case law and tries to take up birdwatching to maintain his mind, but his body constantly stymies him, drawing his attention to its own needs. He keeps himself ill-clothed and -fed and spurns needed medical attention, only to find—on the brink of death—that his body has brought him to a hospital, and that he stops walking until he is cured and discharged. Tim’s early impression that his body has “a mind of its own” (44), a situation comparable to the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886; Ludwigs 123–24), is borne out when it starts to silently speak to him, monosyllabically at first (“Food!” (207)), then progressing to simple sentences (“Leg is hurting” (213)) and sarcasm (“Deficiency of copper causes anemia, just so you know” (216)) before arriving at full-blown taunting:

The other was the interrogator and he the muttering subject […].
Q: Are you aware that you can be made to forget words, if certain neurons are suppressed from firing?
A: Certain what?
Q: And that by suppressing the firing of others, you can be made to forget what words mean entirely? Like the word Jane, for instance.
A: Which?
Q: And do you know that if I do this—[inaudible]
A: Oof!
Q: —you will flatline? And if I do this—[inaudible]
A: Aaa, aaa…
Q: —you will cease flatlining?
(223–24; emphases and interpolations in original except for bracketed ellipsis)

His Jobean lament turns literal, with his mind on God’s side and his body, “the other”, on the Devil’s in a battle for his eternal soul (Burn 46). Ironically, this “God talk” (Ferris Unnamed 248) finally gets Tim diagnosed with schizophrenia, and he receives medication that silences his body, if not stilling his legs. But when he is not medicated, his body can dominate his mind with multiple-page monologues.

Not long after Tim’s mind and body reach a truce thanks to the camping gear and medication, Tim receives word on the west coast that Jane, in New York, has terminal cancer; he resolves to fight his end-of-walk “narcoleptic episodes” (12) to return to her—on foot. His body is not pleased, and it slowly falls apart as Tim fights it eastward cross-country. By the time he is hospitalized “ten miles as the crow flies from his final destination”, his ailments include “conjunctivitis”, “leg cramps”, “myositis”, “kidney failure”, “chafing and blisters”, “shingles”, “back pain”, “bug bites, ticks, fleas and lice”, “sun blisters”, “heatstroke and dehydration”, “rhabdomyolysis”, “excess [blood] potassium”, “splintering [leg] bones”, “burning tongue”, “[ballooning] heels”, “osteal complications”, “acute respiratory distress syndrome”, “excess fluid [in] his peritoneal cavity”, “brain swelling”, and a coma (278–80)—not including the fingers and toes lost to frostbite during an earlier period of walking. Nevertheless, he recovers and reunites with Jane, maintaining a holding pattern by returning to Jane’s hospital bedside after each walk.

Jane recovers; the urgency having dissipated, Tim goes back on the road, confident that “he had proven long ago that there was no circumstance under which he could not walk if he put his mind to it” (303). A victory for mind over body? Not quite. The ending, Tim’s death scene, planned by Ferris from the beginning (Ferris “Tracking”), manages to grant victory to both mind and body without uniting them: his mind keeps working after physical death, but its last thought is of a “delicious […] cup of water” (310). Mind and body are two, but indivisible.

Cartesian duality has relevance for other significant characters. The chain-smoking Detective Roy, assigned the case Tim is defending, later appears with oxygen tank in tow due to emphysema, yet he cannot quit smoking. What might have been a mere shortcut for characterization here carries physical consequences: the oxygen tank limits Roy’s movement and, one supposes, his investigative ability. After Jane recovers, Tim visits Frank Novovian, the security guard at his old law firm, and finds he has “gone fat [...] His retiring slouch behind the security post said there was no going back”; recognising Tim, Frank “lifted an inch off [his] chair, righting his jellied form, which immediately settled back into place” (297; my emphases). Frank’s physical state reflects the state of his career: settled. The mind-body antagonism is even more stark among Tim’s lawyer colleagues. Lev Wittig cannot become sexually aroused unless there is a “rare and extremely venomous snak[e]” in the room with no lights (145)—in direct contrast to his being a corporate tax specialist and the “dullest person you will ever meet” (141). And Mike Kronish famously once billed a twenty-seven-hour workday by crossing multiple time zones, but his apparent victory of mind over matter is undercut by his other notable achievement, being such a workaholic that his grown kids call him “Uncle Daddy” (148).

Jane offers a more vexed case. While serving as Tim’s primary caretaker, she dreads the prospect of sacrificing the rest of her life for him. The pressures of the consciously maintaining her wedding vows directly affects her body. Besides succumbing to and recovering from alcoholism, she is twice tempted by the sexuality of other men; the second time, Tim calls her at the moment of truth to tell her the walking has returned, but instead of offering to pick him up, she says to him, “Come home” (195). As she later admits, asking him to do the impossible is a form of abandonment, and though causality is merely implied, Tim decides a day later not to return. Cartesian duality is similarly blurred in Jane’s fight against cancer. Prior to developing cancer, it is the pretence for Tim’s frequent office absences; she develops cancer; she fights it into remission not by relying on the clinical trial she undergoes, but because Tim’s impossible return inspires her; its remission removes the sense of urgency keeping Tim around, and he leaves; and he later learns that she dies from its recurrence. In multiple senses, Jane’s physical challenges are inextricable from her marriage commitment. Tim’s peripatetic condition affects both of them in homologous ways, gesturing towards the importance of disability studies for understanding the experience both of people with disability and of their caretakers.

Becka copes with cartesian duality in the form of her obesity, and the way she does so sets an example for Tim. She gains weight during adolescence, around the time Tim starts walking uncontrollably, and despite her efforts she never loses weight. At first moody and depressed, she later channels her emotions into music, eventually going on tour. After one of her concerts, she tells Tim she has accepted her body, calling it “my one go-around,” freeing her from having to “hate yourself till the bitter end” (262) to instead enjoy her life and music. The idea of acceptance stays with Tim; whereas in previous episodes of walking he ignored the outside world—another example of reconceptualizing walking in the mode of disability—he pays attention to his surroundings on his journey back to New York, which is filled with descriptions of various geographical, meteorological, biological, and sociological phenomena, all while his body slowly breaks down. By the time he leaves home forever, he has acquired the habit of constant observation and the ability to enjoy things moment by moment. “Beauty, surprisingly, was everywhere” (279), he thinks. Invoking the figure of the flâneur, which Ferris had in mind when writing the novel (Ferris “Involuntary”), Peter Ferry argues that “becoming a 21st century incarnation of the flâneur gives Tim a greater sense of selfhood, a belief in the significance of his own existence within the increasingly chaotic and disorientating urban environment” (59). I concur, with two caveats: the chaotic and disorienting environment is not merely urban; and, contrary to Ferry’s claim that this regained selfhood is in contrast to “disintegrating” “conventional understandings of masculinity” (57), it instead incorporates Tim’s new identity as a person with disability.

Conclusion: The Experience of Disability

More than specific insights into living with disability, the most important contribution of The Unnamed to disability studies is its exploration of the pure experience of disability. Ferris says, “I wanted to strip down this character to the very barest essentials and see what happens when sickness can’t go away and it can’t be answered by all [sic] of the medical technology that the country has at its disposal” (“Tracking”); by making Tim a wealthy lawyer with a caring family—removing common complicating socioeconomic factors of disability—and giving him an unprecedented impairment—removing all medical support and social services—Ferris depicts disability per se, illuminating the importance of disability studies for all people with(out) disability. After undergoing variegated experiences of pure disability, Tim “maintained a sound mind until the end. He was vigilant about periodic checkups and disciplined with his medication. He took care of himself as best he could, eating well however possible, sleeping when his body required it, […] and he persevered in this manner of living until his death” (Ferris Unnamed 306). This is an ideal relation to maintain between mind, body, and environment, irrespective of (dis)ability.


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Author Biography

Chingshun J. Sheu, National Taiwan Normal University

Chingshun J. Sheu is a PhD student in English at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei, specializing in contemporary American fiction and the object-oriented ethics of addressing the Anthropocene. His MA thesis is on Sartre, Badiou, and John Williams’s novel Stoner, and he has published on Kierkegaard, William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions, and the short fiction of Taiwanese author Chang Hsiu-ya.