His new novel So Shelly was published last month by Delacorte Books for Young Readers.
A few weeks ago I asked Roth what he was reading. He replied with a short essay entitled "The Disease Called Life:"
My favorite novel of recent months has been Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed. The protagonist, Tim Farnsworth, is a successful New York City lawyer, who, despite the best efforts of both medical and psychiatric specialists to diagnose and treat his illness, finds himself plagued by a mysterious “disease” that strikes in intermittent phases and compels him to walk – for days, weeks, months, and eventually, years. In our GPS-obsessed world, Farnsworth walks with no destination in mind, nor does he walk for a purpose. There’s no “a-thon” attached to his walk. He walks for neither fitness nor weight loss. He walks because he has to. His addiction costs him the life of materialistic comfort he has earned, his career, his family, and ultimately any attachment to society. Regardless of this heavy price, he walks.Visit Ty Roth's website and blog.
Ferris’s “unnamed” disease – which, he has explained, is a fabrication of his own imagination – is a simple yet poignant metaphor that operates on multiple layers. An obvious interpretation is that the reader, at least at first, empathizes with Farnsworth’s mid-life desire simply to leave behind all the choices made and responsibilities borne that have not lived up to the sense of fulfillment once thought inherent in them: spouses, family, career, adulthood, in general. However, by the story’s close, that reader is challenged to appreciate those very things in his/her own life and to confront the often destructive effects of walking away.
On another level, the walking is a clear metaphor for any all-consuming addiction, often inspired by healthy motives, that grows to Frankenstein’s monster proportions and turns on its onetime master: the sensible dieter who in his/her obsession with weight control contracts an eating disorder; the fitness freak whose once-healthy exercise routine now trumps all other concerns, activities, and people in his/her life; the social drinker who falls victim to alcoholism; the once recreational poker player or online investor who quits his steady job to chase the dream of fast, easy, and copious cash, etc. The examples are countless, but the outcomes frequently the same: ruin.
This leads to one more metaphorical interpretation of the walking; although, I have certainly not even come close to exhausting its potentialities. The collateral damage incurred due to Farnsworth walking is extensive. The fact is, Ferris illustrates, that none of us live in a vacuum in which the impact of our decisions and actions effect no one other than ourselves. Whether we like it or not, we do not possess the freedom to act in any manner that does not have immediate and often drastic outcomes for those in our work, social, and private lives.
For many readers on first thought, Ferris’s walking disease appears nonsensical, yet how often have we thought the same of a seemingly innocuous mole or swelling found cancerous? Perhaps it’s for all of us as the eighteenth-century English poet, Alexander Pope, described his own existence: “This long Disease, my life.” Despite our best efforts, life, including its responsibilities and absurdities, like an incurable disease, can only be accepted and endured not conquered and, most certainly, it cannot be walked away from simply.