The opening 15 or so pages of Joshua Ferris' unsettling second novel, "The Unnamed," are the literary equivalent of a blindfolded belly flop into an empty swimming pool -- confusing, scary and painful.
"It was the cruelest winter," Ferris writes. "The winds were rabid off the rivers. Ice came down like poisoned darts. Four blizzards in January alone, and the snowbanks froze into gray barricades as grim and impenetrable as anything in war . . . There were lines at the grocery store, short tempers . . . The cold was mother of invention, a vengeful mother whose lessons were delivered at the end of a lash."
You're forgiven for wondering whether we're on the road to "The Road" here -- end-of-the-world chic -- but "The Unnamed" does not head into this direction. Instead, Ferris' turns his attention to one man's apocalypse, not mankind's.
Tim Farnsworth is the protagonist, an initially blank slate of a human being whom we meet being chauffeured home from his job at a Manhattan law firm. Again, though, the talented young Ferris, whose debut novel, "Then We Came to the End," was one of recent memory's finest bits of office absurdity (fin de cubicle?), plays with our expectations.
For Farnsworth, a man who might seem to have it all -- great job, "still beautiful" wife, teenage daughter, gorgeous home -- has a deeper problem that the readers never quite get a complete handle on. This unnamed illness is a recurring one, something that strikes unexpectedly, with harrowing results.
"He was going to lose the house and everything in it," Ferris writes. "The rare pleasure of a bath, the copper pots hanging above the kitchen island, his family -- again he would lose his family. He stood just inside the door and took stock. Everything in it had been taken for granted. How had that happened again?"
The allusions to America's far-reaching economic collapse is an obvious one; Farnsworth's losses are not due to corporate malfeasance or a dip in stock prices, but the outcome is certainly similar.
My favorite moment of the book -- and if it seems like I'm only dealing with the opening, I am; quite simply, it's better not to know exactly where "The Unnamed" is headed -- occurs after Farnsworth's simple, direct pronouncement to his wife, Jane: "It's back."
"First thing, she had to dress him," Ferris says. "She knew he didn't want to dress. He wanted to shower, crawl into bed, fall asleep . . . whatever action preserved the routine . . . He was still on top of the bed, frozen in the soldier's huddled field position, his rear up and his arms encircling his head as if to shield it from flying shrapnel."
The imagery is note-perfect. But what stands out from this tableau are Jane's actions. She is the strong one, the spouse who has dealt with her husband's illness before, and stands ready to take action -- and fast. Her love makes what comes after even more heartbreaking. Let's just say Farnsworth has to walk, and far.
The novel doesn't quite keep with its start and meanders a bit. But Ferris' writing remains crisp and profound. I found Tim and Jane Farnsworth's plight relentlessly involving, extremely moving and wonderfully ambiguous. If Ferris overreaches, he does so in ways that work here. This story should not be simple.
"The Unnamed" is an often devastating novel, one that traces the disillusion of a man and a family with heartbreaking clarity. Following "Then We Came to the End," it confirms Joshua Ferris as a striking talent, an author whose ambition and quest for the beauty and pain of illness is second to none.
This is an end of the world tale, then -- no bang, only whimpers.
Christopher Schobert is a freelance Buffalo critic.
By Joshua Ferris
Reagan Arthur Books
320 pages, $25