Culture

Jesse Ball’s new novel ‘Census’ surveys life's essence

The book canvasses kindness, cruelty, loneliness, and politics in the struggle for representation.

Culture

Jesse Ball’s new novel ‘Census’ surveys life's essence

The book canvasses kindness, cruelty, loneliness, and politics in the struggle for representation.
Culture

Jesse Ball’s new novel ‘Census’ surveys life's essence

The book canvasses kindness, cruelty, loneliness, and politics in the struggle for representation.

American author Jesse Ball is often called an experimental writer. His philosophical and sometimes hermetic novels are written in a period of 4-14 days, and rarely revised. He has written about suicide (A Cure for Suicide), poverty (How to Set a Fire and Why), and falsehood (Silence Once Begun); in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece last year, he suggested that all American citizens be incarcerated periodically as a civic duty. But never mind his subjects; the politics of Ball’s fiction are already evident in his style. Marked, like the rest of his work, by a singular clarity of language and vision, Ball’s eighth novel, Census, deals explicitly with the stakes of representation, reminding its readers that the forms of our literature are always political — that language can obscure or facilitate thought, and that literary convention can constrain our worldview.

Census begins with a man digging his own grave. He has come to the end of the journey that the book proceeds to narrate, returning us to the hollow at its start and at its center. When the unnamed narrator, a widowed surgeon, learns he has a fatal heart condition, he must decide what to do with his son, who has Down Syndrome. He elects to “take to the road,” and signs up as a census-taker for a mysterious government bureau. Father and son will share “a last season together, a purpose that has essentially as much purpose as a thing can have [...] We can see the same things and look at them.”

In spare and lucid prose, the novel maps the pair’s journey through townships named A through Z. When they reach Z, the boy will take the train back alone, and live with a woman — “undistinguished, unimpressive, gentle, wonderful” — who has agreed to care for him. Departing from this point of fatal clarity, Census embarks on a survey of kindness, cruelty, and the haphazard effects of loneliness. On the road in their old taxi-cab Stafford, the narrator tells his son about “the loneliness that sometimes afflicts people who are alone,” explaining that meanwhile, “some other people are just as alone, but never become lonely.” How can that be? He wonders. Sometimes, the lonely have chosen to be alone. Musing over a photograph of his wife and daughter, a man “with face like a horn button” explains that they live somewhere else: “You see, I can’t be gotten along with. I am just a bastard some days.”

Like many of Ball’s earlier novels, Census sketches a place and a system that is surreal, yet similar to our own. The country traversed feels both familiar and foreign, like a small-town America growing patchily over an antiquated expanse of Germanic Europe. Though concerned with the survey of a population, the census in Ball’s book seeks something altogether stranger, more elusive and profound, than a record of names and numbers. During a kind of audition for the post, the census bureau chief goes to pains to convey the depth and true purpose of the questions:

“Not, where were your parents born — but what is the meaning of a national boundary? When your parents crossed such a thing to come here — how did it change them? Why did they do it? Who were those people who left the place that they came from — fearful, hopeful, full of a joy long since extinguished, perhaps replaced with fresh joy, perhaps not — who were they, and how, in all the wild mystery of earth and its citizens, could they have come to be the people now crushed by age, waiting fitfully in the waters of death’s first sleep?”

Ball’s census “is not a document that cares about names,” and is not concerned so much with who is counted — by D the pair has already dispensed with going from house to house — but with a person’s account of themselves. By H the narrator has arrived at “THE NEW METHOD OF THE CENSUS”: rather than ask specific questions, they will “try to enter each house and discover what [is] worthy of note.” Lies are elicited as well as confessions. We hear from a man whose testimony had his twin brother hanged, and two bickering sisters who, it transpires, co-author comic novels under a single pseudonym. In another household, the essential kernel comes from a boy’s military style doll, an in-demand toy that the boy’s father — a detective — acquired only when he discovered one under the bed of a dead child whose mother had committed suicide.

The census becomes the search for the essence of a life, the quintessence of a person, and the impossibility, perhaps, of obtaining it. Ball’s book opens onto startling depths, posing a profound inquiry into the nature and the stakes of both observation and representation. What of the world — and we who live in it — is seen and depicted? By what name do we call a thing, and call it to account? In Census, it is the son who is capable of the purest kind of vision, meeting the moment with a gaze that forces neither definition nor interpretation, but rather sees what is. If it is true, as the narrator says, that “at all times all parts of the world are eternally fascinating,” it is the boy who lives closest to this truth, who chooses simply to observe this or that, and, without asking what it means, “leap[s] out of his heart into some kind of empathy with the thing observed, whether it is a Ferris wheel or a tortoise.” Far from being, as one character cruelly suggests, “cursed by God,” the boy is blessed with a godlike vision, “a basic resourcefulness that finds at any moment something profound.”

The son in Census is free, in a sense, of the names we have for things, by which we draw equivalence or hierarchy. “Why do we try to honor things by pretending they are anything like other things?” the narrator asks, when he counts a woman who has named her living child after her dead ones. Naming, he comes to believe, is “a kind of cowardice — an attempt to confine a thing to being only what it is, rather than what it may be.” He speaks instead for “a world without names — wherein we see what is, and are impressed by it — the impressions push into us and change us forever.” This is the world he believes his son lives in.

Census is, as Ball explains in the prologue, “a hollow book,” with the boy at its center. Before beginning Ball determined to “write around him for the most part,” so that he is there only “in his effect.” We never hear from him in direct dialogue, a protective gesture that is at once tender and conceptually sound. The book is in part an imaginative fulfillment of the relationship Ball expected to have with his own brother, who had Down Syndrome and died at 24: that of a father to a son. In a forthcoming interview in Meridian, Ball calls “the set of consensus ideas” we have about people with Down Syndrome “bent and misappropriated and grotesque,” such that he couldn’t “show such a person, like my brother, without inherently either caricaturing or responding to a caricature.” By writing around the figure of the son, Ball revokes the paucity as well as the cruelty of some of our categories and definitions — like disabled. Perception is constrained already by the limiting quality of language, and empathy — which can expand it — is constrained by limiting terms.

How a thing is represented — the value it is accorded, the conventions by which it is described and seen — is as politically vital as the question of whose voices are symbolized and advocated in society.

Calling Ball an experimental writer risks considering his work purely in terms of literature, rather than politics. But like much of Ball’s fiction, Census presents a social as well as a formal critique, eschewing the conventions of social realism to undermine the consensus culture they serve. Like our own census, due again in 2020, Ball’s book deals at heart with the politics of representation. And like our own census, which is already at risk of being skewed for political gain, the forms of our fiction can never be truly neutral. How a thing is represented — the value it is accorded, the conventions by which it is described and seen — is as politically vital as the question of whose voices are symbolized and advocated in society.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Ball calls the attempt to write clearly “the most political act,” echoing Orwell’s timeless argument for clear language as requisite to clear thinking, and clear thinking as “the necessary first step toward political regeneration.” From his clear, unembellished prose to the elements of fabulism that characterize his work, the choices Ball makes as a writer advocate for a detached yet empathetic observation that supplants a reductive vision of the world in which all parts have been categorized, confined, and allotted their place.

At the end of the novel, the narrator’s son is put on a train alone. What can be said of the country he’s being sent into? You can’t help but wish it were a kinder one. The narrator too, at the lip of his own grave, must imagine an impossible future for his son. He will travel on the train until he is “close to nowhere”; he and the conductor will have become great friends. He will be greeted by people who care for him, run to them and be received: “his the true census, he whose eyes have seen all, whose heart has felt all,” and all he says “will be understood as it never has been.” Absorbing, reflective and deeply moving, Census is the most necessary kind of book — one that urges us to see and feel with all the wonder that the world deserves.

Olivia Parkes is a writer and painter based in Berlin.
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