Two much-anticipated January releases — The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris, and Vampire Weekend’s Contra — are case studies in The Sophomore Effort. Then We Came To The End, the 2007 debut novel from Ferris, is one of the funniest, and richest, novels in recent memory. It was easy to bill it as “The Office” in novel form, but it’s much more than that: It’s a story about life and death that just happens to take place at work. Vampire Weekend’s self-titled 2008 album was, despite its hype and the invitation to resent four Columbia grads borrowing Afro-pop and transforming it into “Upper West Side Sowetto,” a blast. After such noteworthy debuts, what do you do for an encore?
If you’re Ferris, you take a risk. The Unnamed shares little in common with Then We Came To The End. Tim Farnsworth is a successful partner at a Manhattan law firm who has a curious affliction: He cannot stop walking. His spells come and go, but when they hit they are severe: Tim awakes in parking lots and backyards, exhausted and unable to recall how he got there. Doctors cannot cure him, and his wife, Jane, dreads waking up in the night to find he is gone again. Their marriage is tested time and again as Tim recovers only to relapse years later.
Whether Tim’s walking is a metaphor — for ennui, mental illness or marital drift — or not is a question Ferris leaves up to the reader. It is a confounding book, resistant to classification, and yet there are transcendent moments — Tim and Jane’s reunions after months apart, a father-daughter bonding time over “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” a perverse anecdote about a lawyer named Lev — sprinkled along the way. Ferris writes about sadness and melancholy with a deep respect for its mystery. He also probes at mental vs. physical pain and the dichotomy between mind and body, soul and flesh. While the ending is ultimately unsatisfying — the book, like its protagonist, just seems to stop, exhausted — it’s encouraging that Ferris still had the discipline to follow the story where it went, away from cliche or tidy resolution. It’s a promising sign for whatever he tackles next.
Contra, at first listen, doesn’t sound like much of a departure from Vampire Weekend. It actually sounds like the band has become more itself: there are more genres — reggae, calypso, ska, synth-pop — packed into these efficient, breezy songs; more hyper-literate wordplay (rhyming “horchata” with “balaclava”; the line “your Tokugawa smile”); and more lyrics about privilege, wealth, self-image and social status, though a close reading shows that lead singer Ezra Koenig is less enthralled by than conflicted about these subjects.
The two most ambitious songs are the last two. “Diplomat’s Son” samples M.I.A. and Toots and the Maytals and unfolds like a short story; it has quickly become our favorite. The closer, “I Think UR A Contra,” is hazy and diffuse, but ends with Koenig laying his heart on his sleeve: “Never pick sides/Never choose between two/Well I just wanted you/I just wanted you.” For an album that initially sounds so similar to its predecessor, Contra ends up surprising with its depth, range, confidence and maturity. Once again, Vampire Weekend has given itself a tough act to follow.