Lit­tle trace of trip from A to Z

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Adam Rivett

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.

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