A twisting road that’s well worth the ride
Jesse Ball’s “The Way Through Doors” is a lovely, unpretentious little thing -- about as promising and sweet as a second novel can be. It’s an odd book, but so was Ball’s first one, the experimental detective novel “Samedi the Deafness.” He appears dedicated to writing odd books.
“The Way Through Doors” concerns Selah Morse, a young pamphleteer, who bows to the needs of adulthood and asks his uncle for a job. He ends up in the Seventh Ministry, a mysterious New York City department whose authority is “both unlimited and non-existent.”
It’s a strange and inexplicable place, not unlike the novel itself. Selah’s business suits, supplied by the ministry, are like those made for the Albanian secret police. At one point, Rita, the ministry’s message girl, serves him a cup of slightly poisoned tea. “I had decided to . . . give you the antidote every day so that you would be forced to obey me,” she says. Then she changes her mind.
But does this really happen, or is it just a story Selah tells? Selah, after all, is an unreliable narrator. He’s telling stories to help a mysterious girl, Mora Klein, who’s lost her memory in a taxi cab accident. If Mora falls asleep, it could cause her irreparable harm. As Selah talks, he searches for clues to her identity.
Conventional novels require a bit of tidiness in their emotional arcs. Raskolnikov kneels at the crossroads; Scout Finch realizes that sometimes mere decency can be heroic. At the same time, forcing consciousness into neat little boxes is like squishing live fish through a garlic press. Here’s where experimental fiction comes in: by finding ways to depict what it actually feels like to be alive, human and confused.
Yet talking about experimental fiction is difficult, partly because it’s the nature of such work to make frames of reference go kablooey. But also, much of it is so self-indulgent that even referring to it can feel embarrassing -- like commenting on tragically bad behavior at a dinner party. Too often, I feel that experimental novelists are shirking their artistic duty. I never feel this way about Ball.
Selah tells stories nestled inside stories. He’ll start one, then a character in that story will start another, and so on. It’s like Hamlet’s mousetrap reimagined as a Russian nesting doll, only without the Dane’s sullen anger. When Selah and Mora start turning up in the stories-within-stories, it makes a kind of deeply satisfying emotional sense. And there’s an odd wisp of deliberate kindness throughout the book, like the smell of roses.
Selah has no aha moment, but he goes from being purposeless to being purposeful. Meanwhile, the stories he tells become heartbreakingly lovely. A sailmaker uses "[t]he sort of needle that might be used to sew your heart shut with rope.”
Or in a story Rita tells: “Events are continuous, not broken, and they never move on. Stories tell themselves one to another, over and over, never ceasing, and we skip here and there, saying this is consciousness, this acrobatic feat, but what of remaining? What of the story of a stone in a field that is a stone and stays upon an evening when there will be rain but there is not yet, and the last moment of redness is paused about the tiny cloud that lingers on the sketched sky?”
Selah keeps Mora awake all night, acting as a gentle male Scheherazade. Yet somehow, she’s still lost. He is given three choices as to how to get her back. To his credit, he’s adult enough to take the path least likely to hurt another soul. Meanwhile, he’s written what may be the perfect pamphlet, titled “WORLD’S FAIR 7 JUNE 1978.”
It’s easier to say what “The Way Through Doors” isn’t than what it is. It isn’t a growing-up story in which the world magically convenes to give the protagonist wisdom. It’s not a book that says “See if you can follow me” and then bamboozles you with plot twists and strange allusions.
In places, it could be deeper. (But why do books have to be deep? -- perhaps that’s simply another novelistic conceit.) Either way, it’s written with a flawless, compassionate ear. Every strange line of prose feels, somehow, thoughtful and necessary.
This isn’t a book for Pynchon lovers. Rather, it’s a book for former “Narnia” dreamers who have read (and liked) a bit of Ben Marcus and grown up without outgrowing the idea that a book should do a person good.