Little trace of trip from A to Z
Even in an era when the distinction between fiction and nonfiction feels like a hopeless insistence, the introduction to Jesse Ball’s new novel feels dangerously personal and prescriptive. Mourning his recently deceased brother, Ball writes: I felt, and feel, that people with Down syndrome are not really understood. What is in my heart when I consider him and his life is something so tremendous, so full of light, that I thought I must write a book that helps people to see what it is like to know and love a Down syndrome boy or girl.
Having so openly stated his means and aims, there is presumably little left but to read between the lines, so to speak. And yet those lines have been drawn in unexpected fashion. Having created sentimental expectations for one kind of story, we are presented with something wholly unexpected.
The novel’s plot is minimal. A recently widowed and terminally ill father travels across the country with his son, both having recently gained employment as census-takers. Their travels feel more like a pretext for random conversations and melancholy reflection than actual data-gathering. Starting in A, they move slowly but surely to Z, a structural conceit that sounds knowing and reductive but which is played completely straight.
The novel is narrated not by the son but by the father, and not once in the fictional text do the words “Down syndrome” appear. There is an occasional sense of disquiet or misunder- standing between father and son and the people they encounter, but the reader implies a lot here; for the most part the census-takers listen and take notes. None of the tropes of illness writing appear. As Ball writes in his introduction, inviting a reviewer to give over analysis of the book to him entirely: “I didn’t see how it could be done, until I realized I would make a book that was hollow. I would place him in the middle of it, and write around him for the most part. He would be there in his effect.”
What is left in this very artful hollow Ball has sculpted is supremely odd — allegorical yet indistinct, often extending itself for long stretches in prose of artfully dampened affect and impact.
The landscape the pair pass though is carefully denuded of almost all distinct detail — even the vaguely dystopic colouring that occasionally enlivens the page doesn’t add up to much. When the novel’s narration is given over to the stories of the interviewees, compelling if inexplicable stories emerge. Soon enough father and son are off to the next town.
Ball’s writing has in the past been praised for its starved rigour and restraint, and while it’s true that the novel’s sustained tone and carefully deployed moments of emotion suggest an artist in supreme control of their material, in Census the approach feels underfed. After 50 or so pages of this prose, the eye grows restless:
“I felt that I must continue to Z. There was nothing for it but to continue to Z. And at the same time, as my condition worsened, I felt sure that I would not make it to Z. What then? When there is nothing to do, you do what little there is — what little is left.”
Compared to the livelier narrative voice of his earlier How to Set a Fire and Why or the richer philosophical terrain of A Cure for Suicide, the book’s conception and execution is skeletal. Too often chapters end on emptily portentous moments (“How then to become a crowd by oneself? How indeed?”) that strive for effect.
And yet, as the book moves to its conclusion, the approach does in part pay off and its final pages — both of the traditional novel, and an even more personal epilogue — are quietly moving.
Yet even in his epilogue lies an implicit critique of his novel: once again the confessional has trumped the imagined. Having explicitly created a personal frame for the book, it comes to feel like a double theft: skimpy on the actual, and underdeveloped regarding the imagined.
In the fortnight or so between reading Census and a handful of Ball’s earlier novels, and knocking these responses into the necessary shape of a review, much of the novel has left me, or at least left little trace. In a publishing environment where overt sops to likeability and the immediate abound — a world in which every second novel starts in medias res, as if terrified of losing a reader’s presumably fracturing attention within 10 pages — I’m grateful for a chillier approach, and moved by the doubt and loss so often at the heart of his work.
In many of those earlier novels the tension between what can be known and written is fundamental. In Census it comes to feel — whether Ball agrees or not — that words are sometimes simply not enough. is a writer and critic.