Dear Joshua Ferris,
Do you realize that you’ve written the second great novel about obsessive-compulsive disorder published in the past decade? (I plan to shelve it next to Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, with its hypnotic rhythm of repetition and control.) I know The Unnamed is supposed to remain just that—the novel goes to great lengths to avoid being reductive, and Tim visits every breed of specialist in an attempt to determine whether his singular malady is medical, psychological, or nestled in some in-between grey area… but your protagonist’s central malady just has too much in common with OCD, a brainworm that can wax and wane. How chilling, then, when Tim first says those words—“It’s back”—that signify the return of his obsessive, compulsive walking. (I imagine the words uttered in a dread-filled whisper, like something out of an Argento flick about the inexplicable and cruel depths of the human body. You’ve written a medical horror story.)
But this is a novel, not an Oliver Sacks case study, so Tim’s affliction must be more than just a simple disorder. I want it to mean something. I want the walking disease to be a metaphor for something else—a restless heart, an allergy to domesticity—but it never is. It’s unyielding to analysis: a man who walks when he doesn’t want to, who stops only when his body balks. It seems senseless, much like the other “legitimate” diseases that Tim feels a sort of fond yearning for, if only because they can be catalogued and named. (Who asks what cancer means? What would a close reading of leukemia reveal?)
When you were conjuring “the unnamed,” brainstorming a medical monkey to strap to your hero’s back, did you remember that Psych 101 gem—Alien Hand Syndrome? That’s when your own limb becomes the enemy; you wake up short of breath, with a hand around your throat, and realize that you are choking you. (As with Tim, it’s impossible to not suspect these people are faking it.) Did you come across the memoir of one Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon Man, whose book I happened to read after yours? Both are narratives of compulsion and extreme distance. Karnazes runs because he wants to, or because he has to, whatever the difference is; he runs for days at a stretch, three hundred and fifty miles sans sleep, pissing while running, shoving Hawaiian pizza down his mouth while running. He pukes and cramps and hallucinates and risks brain hemorrhage and runs. (Is novel-writing itself a form of marathon compulsion, albeit one in which your toe doesn’t tend to fall off “like a giant raisin”?)
But maybe there is meaning here: the low-bud-get alcoholism that Tim’s wife resorts to—isn’t that the mirror image of Tim’s walking, an uncontrollable ritual of self-destruction? I love the tawdry backdrops you’ve chosen for her meltdown: Bennigan’s, Denny’s, Holiday Inn. (You realize that scenes of great, gut-busting beauty can be cast against the backdrop of America’s corporate chain crapulence.) Have you ever had an existential crisis in an Applebee’s? Do you walk for pleasure, like Will Self? Are the things that kill us any better if we know what to call them?
Let me know when you have a chance.
New York City