Joshua Ferris is the author of Then We Came to The End and The Unnamed, both of which are published by Little, Brown and Company, the latter just this month. I spoke with Mr. Ferris by phone in December 2009 about The Unnamed. Upon picking up the receiver, Mr. Ferris informed me that I’d caught him in his boxers, tangled in a sundry lot of wires and cables. Apparently undeterred by what sounded a precarious situation, Mr. Ferris forwent any efforts to untangle himself and carried on with the interview, and for his bravery and generosity I am immensely grateful. For his engaged and considered responses I am even more so – as I don’t doubt you will be, too – although anyone who has read his fiction is unlikely to be surprised by the thoughtfulness he herein displays.
The Unnamed follows Tim Farnsworth as he, his wife, daughter, and coworkers attempt to understand a unique illness that compels him, without conscious effort or will, to commence and, for uncertain amounts of time, continue walking, with no clear, conscious drive. Through this, Ferris offers an egolessly insightful examination of the psychic effects of knowledge, ignorance, love, marriage, and the various compromises and comforts thereof.
Benjamin Gottlieb: I’m interested in how you consider the disease that Tim has. Would you be able to diagnose his illness, since you’ve, in a sense, lived with it for so long? How do you think of it?
Joshua Ferris: Well, your question reminds me a little of the introduction to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, in which he calls into question the use of the word “reality” when you’re not using quotes around it. He gives the example of – we’ll have to fact-check this* – of a plant or a flower, and he then says, “What is that plant or flower to the various people who see it? One may be a botanist and know quite a lot about this particular biological aspects of the flowers. One may just be a simple passerby who doesn’t even notice it. One may be a business man.” I forget the precise examples that he gives, but he breaks down the way in which this particular thing can be seen by a variety of different people with different perspectives. And I think that this disease can similarly be thought of in a kind of recursive and refracting light, depending on who it is who’s looking at it. A medical professional may be stumped but may also be put it into as narrow a niche as they’re capable of doing and saying, at the end of the day, “We don’t know exactly what this is but it’s most likely some form of neurological misfiring.” They may be able to put it under an obsessive-compulsive aegis and put some fancy spin on it. A mental medical professional might call it schizophrenia. And because I had to think about it in these medical ways, I first think about the way in which a doctor would think of it. But I also think of it metaphorically: What are the ways in which one might be able to project meaning on a disease? I think of it also as the other characters think of it; as you pointed out, I’ve lived with it for a long time, so my impression could be filtered through the eyes of Tim’s daughter and I could think of him as sort of crazy, or I could think of him through the eyes of his wife and think of him as mysterious and pathetic but ultimately noble. So there’s a lot of different points of reference that, over the course of the two years that I wrote the book, I spent thinking about, and I wanted certainly to think about them in as robust a way as possible.
BG: The disease is very capacious in many ways: it offers metaphors for a tremendous variety of other motifs within the novel, but even just the illness itself reflects very much upon the people who interact with it, the people who think about it, and the people who really have to deal with it. In many ways, this novel I think will come as something of a surprise to people who are expecting something more in line with Then We Came to The End, with something with more of a satirical edge. One of the really great, bitingly satirical parts of The Unnamed is when you’re dealing with these doctors and the sort of trading off of responsibility; what makes it so acute – especially to people who have had to deal with doctors a lot and whose sense of well-being and sanity becomes so dependent upon these professionals – is how you trace how, in many ways, these professionals can make you feel impotent in your own capacity to function as a sort of sovereign being. There’s this moment where one of the doctors whom he sees describes his illness as “benign idiopathic perambulations,” which is just so funny and just so accurately captures the absurdity behind the power of medical terminology, which often, as in this case, merely disguises ignorance through a veneer of knowledge. And I think what interests me about that is – really it comes up with the title – how you discuss the power of naming and knowing and believing and the differences between each of them: how much you can know something, what it means to name something, what it means to believe in something. I’m wondering if you could talk that, about the differences between knowing, naming, and believing in this novel.
JF: The first thing that comes to mind is that a name is relief; a name means relief for something. This was especially a torture for those who were suffering anonymously before the Internet, because now we can avail ourselves of nearly the history of the world, if we dig enough. But without a name, none of that amounts to anything. Suffering seems as much metaphysical as physical. And so the naming of something puts it squarely on Earth and it implies that it will not require a superhuman gesture for its potential resolution. If you have a name and a diagnosis, with enough attention and resources, it can very well be cured. So, in many respects, a name feels as if you’re making a leap from some claim about what you believe – in other words: “I am sick” – to a claim about what you know: “He’s sick.” It’s an objectification of the thing. A lot of the diseases that I found compelling that I looked into – like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome – are diseases that are arrived at through a series of ruling everything else out. And you get that name and that diagnosis through a series of failed positives. I think when people get that diagnosis, it’s really half the psychological battle. Tim doesn’t have that luxury, despite the invention of this possible name, because it exists outside the realm of the “real.” I think that a lot of the things that he’s struggling with is basically this: the difference between his disease as a name and as merely a belief, which can be easily confined “in his head.” And he’s striving to get it to be acknowledged and made objective and validated. The question of validation, it’s really paramount. The interesting thing, to just to expand on that – I think a disease – the one criterion for a disease should be: somebody is suffering. Suffering should be the criterion. And then it gets very complicated from there, because you have to wonder if the suffering is being generated by a mental concern or a physical concern, what legitimately qualifies it as such. And it goes from there. It gets very complicated.
BG: So a disease, ultimately, is defined by the suffering on the part of the diseased person, to you?
JF: I think so. That would be my definition.
BG: In that way, it seems that there are very few people in the novel who aren’t diseased in some sense.
JF: [Laughs] I’m not sure that we have many people in the world who aren’t diseased.
I realize that it’s an awfully liberal definition of the word. But let’s take the case of somebody suffering from conversion disorder: a man thinks he has Parkinson’s. And you will find that person convinced of the disease but still doing things like, when he or she falls in front of the doctor, not catching himself. A normal person who’s sick with a neurological disease will at least attempt to catch him- or herself, but this person, because they have a mental disorder that has made them fabricate a horrible disease, wants to demonstrate how diseased they are. This, too, is a disease. That’s probably a physical disease. There’s probably a disorder in the brain that causes them to mentally manufacture a disease. And I believe that to be a degenerative disorder itself, even though it doesn’t fall into the category of what we think of as degenerative. But we need to define it down; if people were listening to me, and following my definition for disease, no one would be happy because it would increase our health care costs [Laughs].
BG: To return somewhat to the distinction between what it means to name something and what it means to know something – something very on in the novel that really struck me were these two sequential passages – one follows another – and it’s when Tim’s wife, Jane, is considering her menopause and the difference between her hot flashes and Tim’s mysterious walking illness. I hope you don’t mind me reading these two passages, which you wrote, to you. This first one is: “He couldn’t know about hot flashes and she couldn’t know about walking.” But the difference between the hot flashes and the walking is that one of them has a name and the other doesn’t. Hot flashes have a name: it’s a symptom of menopause. His walking illness doesn’t have a name. And yet both are equally unknowable to each other, in some sense. So what does naming do if it still doesn’t entirely make something known?
JF: First and foremost: legitimizes it in the eyes of other people, so that something so very essential to our human nature can advance. To some extent, when a disease remains unnamed, and if that unnamed disease remains undiagnosed, I think the tendency would be to question – no matter your good intentions, some suspicion would enter in. And that suspicion would diminish your ability to sympathize. When you have a familiar disease or a familiar symptom – if it can be categorized, treated; it’s well-known; you can read about it, you can write about it, you can educate yourself about it, you can hear testimonials about it – it adheres to a sense of the way in which people have generally suffered and thereby extends your sympathy for that sufferer. Without a name, the sympathy may be a little bit more grudging. And I think that people who suffer without a clear diagnosis or medical community legitimization do so under a cloud of suspicion, and it robs them of something that they deserve. Even if they’re malingerers: even malingering is a disease. So I would say that naming something begins the process of sympathy. The passage that you pointed out also brings out the limitations of that, because education and familiarization will only get the objective observer so far. We’re each living in our individual bodies and can’t quite experience, together, what we’re each experiencing, and those limitations are frustrating even within the urge to know.
BG: The immediate sentence after that touches upon what you just said. That sentence says: “They were like two inviolable spheres touching at a fine point in their curves, touching but failing to penetrate, failing to breath the others’ air.” Like with his disease – and like with many of the diseases, according to your liberal definition, in this novel – there are many extrapolations that you can take from this. What it seems to be saying is: we are only capable of knowing people to a certain extent; we can never fully know or understand another person. Does that seem right to you?
JF: Yeah, that seems right. And I think that, in particular, this revolves around not just the unknowability of the other person, psychologically-speaking, and the desire to know this person, but that this “thing” that we can reach out and touch and break, kiss, make love to, the thing that feels the most real about someone – palpable and real – is unknowable, too. I’ll give you a quote that I looked at often. It may well be in the letters, some collection of letters, of Kafka. It says: “We are as forlorn as children lost in the wood. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the grief that is in me and what do I know of yours. And if I were to cast myself down before you and weep and tell you, what more would you know about me than you know about Hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful?”† Not exactly an uplifting quote, but I think it does a pretty good job of accurately describing what kind of isolation a person can feel when they’re suffering.
BG: There’s a point right toward the end of the novel that struck me as an interesting potential counterpoint to the excerpt that I just read and it’s this point where Tim is looking at birds – which are referenced on the cover of the novel – and it says that he "had learned to distinguish between a hundred variations of unnamed winds. He couldn't name the twitchy burrower with the black-tipped tail that scanned an upland prairie for danger, but he knew it as well as the raspy grass with the flowering spike that left soft yellow pollen on his pant legs." He has this sense that even though he doesn’t know the names of any of these things – he doesn’t know the name of the wind, he doesn’t know the names of the birds – he still knows them, in some sense. How do you think he knows them without knowing their names? It seems quite distinct from the knowing and the naming disparity that you’ve drawn throughout the rest of the novel.
JF: Well I think that both Dr. Bargdasarian and Jane know he’s suffering; they just don’t know how or what to name it or what it’s called. So that’s a broader thing. But for him, he’s walked so long and he’s lived outside for so long that I suppose it would be a kind of almost occult thing, which he knows in a personal sense, as a mystic might know things that we’ve remained insensitive to.
BG: So do you think that the essence of the word “know” changes as the novel progresses? Or at least what it means to Tim changes?
JF: I haven’t thought about it but it very well might. The way the narrator uses the word might very well change, too, actually. Because knowledge is very much up in the air in the first part of the book. And then there’s a departure. I think that the book does make up its mind about whether or not he has a disease; it takes a position on that. But then other mysteries start to crowd in about exactly what it means to be a body and a mind, about what body and mind mean. So the other mysteries crowd in but knowledge itself probably does change – the nature of knowledge probably does change. And certainly by the end the narrator talks about Tim knowledgeably and he talks about his own knowledge – toward the world, toward his family, toward the natural landscape and things he finds in nature – with a great deal of confidence. So I think you can certainly say there’s a qualitative difference between that latter knowledge and the knowledge that’s up in the air about his disease.
BG: There is something that, for lack of a better word, I would call almost sneaky in the progression of the novel, where it begins with one narrative tone and it ends with a very different one. This changes about halfway through, maybe a little more than halfway through. Why I say that it’s sneaky is that you almost seem to be playing with how much the reader can know the book, in a sense; you kind of change the game a bit. It starts out almost more plot-driven; there are these strands that give it a propulsive, forward movement. That continues throughout the novel but it becomes less attached strictly to the plot and it makes the novel somewhat difficult to grasp at points; it feels as though it escapes reach once the reader knows what it is. The novel changes a lot; it has a sort of protean form. And I wondered if this was a conscious decision on your part; if in some sense you were playing with readers’ expectations by giving the reader a sense of knowing, again, what the novel is about and then changing what the novel focuses on, changing it a bit so that what the novel is about is not graspable, in the same way that so many of the things within the novel are not fully graspable.
JF: Yes, I was. The movement is meant to parallel the unknowability of Tim’s self. And the setting up of traditional plots – plot strands, narrative strands – in the beginning that ordinarily get resolved was intended to be thwarted. I was always aware of establishing them and then thwarting them. And I think it’s probably fairly obvious why: the nature of the book itself is what can and cannot be known. And if you have an element of your plot that is tidily summed up I think it does a disservice to the more aching questions that haunt the characters.
BG: What you set up at the very beginning of the novel is this kind of taxonomy of habit, in a way, where people’s lives are largely dependent on habit, on habitualized routines. And disease is certainly something that pulls people out of their routines and out of their habits, and it’s something it does with the characters in this novel. But when they’re pulled out of those habits they’re pulled almost into another world of new habits, of new habits that define the “ill” world, the world of Tim’s illness and later of other illnesses that other characters develop. Do you think that it’s possible to live without habit? Do you think that these characters, or Tim in particular, escape habit?
JF: There are two questions there; they’re both very compelling. The answer to the first one is: I think that the making of habit and the breaking of habit is nearly the definition of freedom. When you have the right to make them and then break them you have full freedom. And very often habit allows you to create or work, invent, recreate – whatever it may be – and the breaking of those habits might be through force – because you have certain obligations – but it might also be to escape your life, to some extent. So I think that in many respects the novel’s about how habit and personal freedom are very much interlinked. When he is forced to make new habits, those habits are quite different than the ones that he had when he was living as an autonomous man, determining his life as he wanted. And those new habits seem to him the opposite of freedom: they seem like habits made by Hell. And the question becomes – whether it’s a disease or whether it’s an obligation or responsibility, some larger force calling to you – the question is: how well do you adapt to them? I think the tendency is not to adapt well, to rebel to some extent. There’s certainly been a very long literary history of that, but outside of literature I think it says a lot about the person’s character.
BG: And what do you think it says about Tim’s character?
JF: Well, misery is not accepting your fate. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fate is what limits us.” That’s a different notion of what I think we traditionally think of as fate. We traditionally think of fate as being a fickle force working its magic, either as a design of God or a meaningless, random cosmos. But when you think of fate as that which limits you, then you can start to think of the ways in which you accept those limitations, the ways in which you attempt to overcome those limitations. And my intention for the book was to show this character doing both: rebelling against them, almost to the point of suicide, and then accepting them, with the same physical ramifications. His physical health is not improved by his mental capitulation to his new fate. But he manages, I think, a dignity and hopefully a kind of heroism by defying the fate that his body has saddled him with. And that seems to be the best thing you can do if you’re sick. And it’s what is probably, quietly, in a very unsung manner, done every day by people who are chronically or mortally ill.
*As per Mr. Ferris’ suggestion: this suggestion appears pp. 252-253 of Nabokov, Vladimir, Lectures on Literature, Fredson Bowers, ed., New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1980. In lieu of both an awkward perversion of Mr. Ferris’ actual response and a copyright-infringement-length excerpt of Nabokov’s lecture, I recommend, should you neither have a copy of Lectures on Literature nor any desire to purchase or borrow it, reading the passage here, via Google Books. It begins with the paragraph that opens, “‘The Carrick,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and ‘The Metamorphosis,’” for those who want to cut straight to the chase.
†This is from a letter to Oskar Pollak, one of Kafka’s closest friends. The full letter is available in English translation in Frederick R. Karl, trans., Franz Kafka, Representative Man, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1991.
The image for this interview is taken from the cover of The Unnamed. The pre-colon part of the title is an excerpt of a sentence that appears quite late in the novel and is hopefully not giving anything away.