In “Census,” Jesse Ball set out to write a hollow novel. The nature of its hollowness turns out to be a key to this singular author’s work.
The cavity at “Census’” core is human-shaped: It’s a novel written around its own central character, a man with Down syndrome. This nameless man’s mother is dead, and his father has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The father, who narrates the novel, rejects treatment and signs up to be a census taker, a means of spending his final season traveling with his son. Though the son is never described directly, the setup is a social parade, exposing him to the range of people a country can hold and serving up their reactions to him. In Ball’s unadorned, aphoristic prose, the meetings stand like self-contained fables, and together these fables tell us much about the son, the people he meets and the society they form.
In one household, children play happily with the son, chiming for the census takers to stay “forever, at least a week!” while to the family’s adults, “everyone who was not one of them was to them draped in poison.” Elsewhere, an elderly couple is so kind that the son insists on taking their census a second time. The couple’s kindness holds out: They play along as though the first meeting had never happened. “Reason and sensical behavior are not always necessary,” the father observes, “if there exists some small flood of kindness.”
This is characteristic Ball, author of seven solo novels, plus collaborative works, poetry and nonfiction. If there’s a refrain running through his large body of work, it’s that compassion, kindness and empathy trump rules and authority of any kind, be they legal, social, institutional or other. In “Census,” we glimpse the origin of this radical and deeply felt anti-authoritarianism. We learn in an introduction that the son is inspired by Ball’s brother, Abram Ball, who had Down syndrome and died in 1998 at age 24. Speaking of his brother, Ball has said: “His heart was very strong, and his vision of life was vivid, and it lives on and is the core of my work, certainly.”
“Census” tells us that, in his brother, Ball loved someone whom society at large was not prepared to accommodate or appreciate. The son has an emotional clarity, a presence, a life force that’s entirely absent from the degraded societies we see in “Census” and elsewhere in Ball’s work. “They experience the world just as we do,” says one of the novel’s kinder characters, “and maybe even, maybe even in a clearer light.”
This, then, is a book about the social failure to people like Abram Ball and his fictional counterpart justice. Time and again in Ball’s universe, social systems curb or kill human and humane impulses — as in “A Cure for Suicide,” where a system for rehabilitating people sees them reduced to shells of their former selves. For Ball, the architecture of human society is fundamentally at odds with humanity itself, and the decisive fact of a person’s character is whether they align themselves with humanity or its rules.
At least, this is one way of reading “Census.” While Ball is willing to stick his neck out and write a narrative as plainly sincere as a medieval morality play, he also makes space for complexity, the flux of things, the slipperiness of truth and knowledge. Case in point: the novel’s central hollow, which both allows Ball to write about his brother without diminishing his memory with words, and forces readers to participate in imagining him. The hollow is rich and generative, a lacuna of a kind Ball has mastered.
He once told the Paris Review, “A book is often an account, or a series of accounts, that create a world that is sort of half of the world. There are references to a world, and then the reader supplies the other fifty percent.” This, he notes, creates a “a very rich world, full of paradoxes or conflicting authorities and ideas.”
This is classic postmodernism: the rejection of absolutes, the embrace of uncertainty, contingency and multiplicity. In fact, there are two such lacunae in “Census” — the son and the state. As census-takers of course the father and son form an arm of government, and yet the state is mostly a blank. Crucially, both son and state, the novel’s two great blanks, are instruments of measure. “Most of all it was my son who prepared me for this work, my son who showed me, not in speech but in his daily way, that we are by our nature a kind of measure, that we are measuring each other at every moment,” says the father. And so the hollow of the son travels in tandem with the unknown quantity of the state, taking the nation’s measure. The novel’s core bind might be just this: We can never truly know or be known, and yet we will spend our lives trying.
Such relativism often breeds nihilism, something of which Ball has been accused. Certainly, his novels frequently depict people painfully locked in futile pursuits, unable to see or understand, much less affect, the systems that entrap them — a quality that has drawn comparisons to Kafka and Beckett. And yet in Ball’s worlds, futility, suffering and the impossibility of knowledge are always tempered by those core values of kindness, empathy and compassion, which are not relative but absolute and timeless. Yes, life as humans tend to live it is miserable and futile — but the misery and futility are not in life’s essence but its execution.
And that execution, “Census” suggests, can be reclaimed. Midway through the novel, the father invents a “New Method of the Census,” “a method that would adhere in a fundamental way to the spirit of the census, but that would permit my human fallacy less rein in its ruinous deceits.” Under this method, he will simply go into each town and try to discern what is worthy of note. “I have come to see that he who looks too hard for any particular thing,” he says, “though he may find it, will certainly miss the most wondrous and strange things he passes, though they stare him in the face.” Shortly afterward, the pair meets one of the novel’s kindest characters. By choosing a different method of measuring, the father has found his way to some of the world’s timeless goodness. We can never truly know or be known, and yet we can choose our method of investigation, our value system.
Ultimately of course the father will die and the son will remain. Ball leaves the son’s future as infinite and open as the space he occupies in the present, only wishing for him “some good beginning, a place where a person can stay.” This revises history: Ball’s brother died, taking with him his strong heart and his vivid vision of life. In this revision alone, this damning but achingly tender novel holds open a space for human redemption, never mind that we have built our systems against it.
Robins is a writer and translator who lives in Los Angeles.
Ecco: 272 pp., $25.99