Reading Jesse Ball’s new novel feels like being hypnotised, or like having your heart broken – but really it feels like both at once. It’s a dreamlike road-trip of a book, more Kafka than Kerouac, in which a terminally ill widower and his young son, who has Down syndrome, travel across a nameless continent in an indeterminate past. They journey from a town called A to a town called Z, taking a bizarre census, marking each resident they encounter with a tattoo. But beside or beneath this story – which has the feel of a fable or parable, transpiring outside the specificities of time and place – something else is being constructed: an act of remembrance or restitution.
Census opens with – and reading it is framed by – a nonfictional foreword to the meandering fiction that follows. In it, Ball explains why he wanted to write the book (‘I felt, and feel, that people with Down syndrome are not really understood’) and how he decided to do it (‘I realised I would make a book that was hollow’). In the opening line, we learn that the book is about – or rather, says Ball, ‘around’, the distinction is important – a real person, on whom the boy in the novel is based: ‘My brother Abram Ball died in 1998.’ We learn that Abram had Down syndrome, and that when he died, aged 24, he had been quadriplegic for years. As a boy, Jesse assumed that he would live with and care for Abram when they were adults, in a relationship ‘very similar to that of a father and son’, until death intervened. The power of Ball’s foreword is connected to the simplicity with which it is written, which, in turn, highlights an irony: that a loved person has died tragically young can be stated in a handful of words, but to express the transformations wrought by that loss would exhaust the capabilities of language. One reading of Census is that it offers, or attempts to offer, an artistic consolation for that inconsolable loss. It’s the closest Ball can get to realising ‘a future that did not ever come’.
Despite its brevity, at just under two pages long, that foreword is among the most moving openings to a novel I’ve read in many years. The story that follows has a contrastingly numbed and spectral quality, like a half-remembered dream, as though the shift from foreword to fiction has cast a veil of bewitching fog between the reader and the story. Father and son drive from one town to another, through landscapes that feel drably indistinguishable, meeting people as they go. Their journey, though predetermined, is peripatetic. The vague locations they stop at reflect the obscure aims of the census itself: ‘we weren’t exactly after anything’. Perhaps Ball has described the land this way to reflect the emotions aroused in the teller by the tale: as though, in empathy with the author’s mourning, this imagined country has dressed itself in its most subdued, depleted colours. The ambiguity of landscape thus reflects the peculiar opacity of the book’s execution. Ball states in the foreword that this ‘hollow’ novel is written ‘around’ Abram, as though it is orbiting an absence. Yet there are correspondences and parallels – between the ‘real’ brother and the fictionalised son, between the author and the father – that intentionally disturb the reader’s ability to distinguish fiction from nonfiction, the imaginative possibilities of the novel from the irrefutable fact of a death. This, it seems to me, is precisely Ball’s point: to defend the ambiguity of literature, partly because, in more than one sense, it keeps people alive.
As with any road trip worth its salt, the journey out is a journey in: to cross a continent is to plunge into memory. The ‘grace’ of the census, the narrator remarks, is its provocation to self-reflect: ‘to examine your life in the light that it sheds’. He takes this oracular injunction to heart. He reminisces about his wife, who was a professional clown, a playful and compassionate trickster. He remembers the sweet and curious nature of his son as a younger child, whom he describes as ‘an appropriate burden’: an obligation, certainly, but a revelation too. Occasionally, father and son visit entrancingly strange locations that, though surreal, are precisely evoked. Behind a rope factory on ‘an immense hill’ is an overgrown cemetery, each grave adorned with a knot made from glass. The glass knots’ meaning is never fully explained, but the qualities the image evokes – of fragile and lucid intricacy, acknowledging death while it catches the light – reflect the novel as a whole. Census can feel baffling and inexplicable, but it’s often startling too. It’s hard to classify the book because it’s many things at once: an act of memorial; an affirmation of art; a defence of basic human goodness; a brotherly love letter; and, perhaps most poignantly, a bedtime story to a boy who can no longer hear it.
For the narrator, what matters more than places or objectives are people and their reactions. Ball describes how people respond to the son, rather than offering detailed descriptions of him: we never learn much about what he looks like, let alone his name. Some readers may find the elisions and evasions distract from the novel’s power, but Census is not a grief memoir. Instead, Abram’s presence is evoked ‘in and between the words’, through the various ‘effects’ he has had, or might have had, on the people who met him. A doctor asks – with a brisk insensitivity that feels excruciatingly true to life – ‘who [the son] thinks he is’. One woman suggests the son has been ‘cursed’ by God. Another offers empathy: ‘My daughter was like your son.’ While the son’s vulnerability has evoked in his parents, and continues to evoke in his father, deep tenderness, crippling worry, and soaring joy, it’s also true that the son’s condition, in certain strangers, elicits ‘base and awful’ behaviour. Part of loving a vulnerable person entails a degree of reflexive hatred towards the people who misunderstand them. Recalling how local children would first befriend, and then abandon, his son, the narrator remarks that ‘having our son made [the boy’s mother] like people less in general, I know it made me like them less.’
That Census is published in 2018 is significant, to the extent that anniversaries are: it’s 20 years since Abram died. In the closing pages of the book, the father reaches town Z, having long ago abandoned any pretence that he will complete the census – he never believed in it anyway. He and his son must part ways, and the father will soon die. And, eventually, language does too. Ball concludes the book with a series of square-format photographs of Abram. These are the final evidence that Abram lived, and I viewed them with the sense – a result of the cumulative nature of Census, which achieves its effects slowly, and with an understatement that feels subliminal – that I had met Abram before; that here was a familiar person, not a stranger. We see him in the snow, held up by his grinning parents, or as a smiling silhouette at a luminous window. We see him in a yard, in a suit, looking goofy and beautiful. And we see him in a sink, as a toddler, having a bath. Earlier in the novel, Ball references the photographs directly: ‘[The] essential ridiculousness and joy of bathing a small human in a sink was not to be avoided or lost.’ How could anyone disagree? Census progresses with such a meditative languor that it feels, at times, like being lulled into a dream. Contrastingly, it can offer moments of almost unbearable intensity. Census might be a ‘hollow’ book, but it is overflowing with feeling.