Jesse Ball - Writing poised somewhere between very old, the timeless territory of fables and folktales, and the very new, disjunctive, tricky fiction

Jesse Ball, The Way Through Doors (Vintage, 2009)

"With his debut novel, Samedi the Deafness, Jesse Ball emerged as one of our most extraordinary new writers. Now, Ball returns with this haunting tale of love and storytelling, hope and identity.
When Selah Morse sees a young woman get hit by a speeding taxicab, he rushes her to the hospital. The girl has lost her memory; she is delirious and has no identification, so Selah poses as her boyfriend. She is released into his care, but the doctor charges him to keep her awake, and to help her remember her past. Through the long night, he tells her stories, inventing and inventing, trying to get closer to what might be true, and hoping she will recognize herself in one of his tales. Offering up moments of pure insight and unexpected, exuberant humor, The Way Through Doors demonstrates Jesse Ball's great artistry and gift for and narrative."

"In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook published Plotto, a practical guide to narrative construction. In it, he sets out a general schematic that his readers, or “plottoists,” would do well to keep in mind: An individual with certain attributes encounters some difficulty or complication, which is then addressed and/or resolved. Cook goes on to elaborate hundreds of possible complications, while cross-referencing individuals with certain attributes who might have encountered them and detailing ways the situation could turn out. Whether or not Jesse Ball is familiar with Cook’s endlessly permutable plot boiler, something of its spirit animates his second novel, The Way Through Doors.
After an amnesiac woman is literally flung into his arms, a young man named Selah Morse must (says a doctor) keep her awake for eighteen hours. Morse decides that the best way to do this is to ply her with mint juleps and make up eighteen hours’ worth of interconnected stories in which she may come to recognize herself. The remainder of The Way Through Doors consists of these stories, featuring multiple versions of Morse trying to track down multiple versions of the young woman with multiple obstacles placed in his path. Scheherazade, look out.
Ball, whose last novel, Samedi the Deafness (2007), was also constructed of labyrinthine identities, allows his narrative to overwhelm the book’s framing device, and we never quite return to where we started (Morse’s apartment). The search takes Morse and his surrogates through a variety of landscapes; some are torn straight out of folk tales—dogs play fiddles, sinister blacksmiths are at large, and forbidding strangers prowl country lanes—and some approximate a vaguely enchanted New York. In the latter, we encounter Morse’s most appealing creations: the “guess artist,” an amiable sidekick who can read people’s minds; the city’s tallest building, whose height stretches mostly down, below the street’s surface, and which is populated by foxes who pretend to be human and live in the basement in a saltbox house on a sunlit meadow cut by a stream; and Morse himself—tale teller, eccentric pamphleteer, and mysterious “municipal inspector” able to open any door anytime with a flash of his badge.
That the young woman in her various incarnations is as unknown and unknowable at novel’s end as at its beginning makes good sense. Readers, after all, have been listening to Morse’s tales, and tales within tales, while she has been called away to act in them and to utter (through the mouths of proxies and doppelgängers) apposite maxims: “Stories tell themselves one to another, over and over, never ceasing, and we skip here and there, saying this is consciousness, this acrobatic feat.” We—not Morse, not the young woman—are asked to recognize ourselves in this marvelous, Escher-inflected labyrinth of plot." - Laird Hunt

"Jesse Ball’s second novel begins with an innocuous premise. Selah Morse, an amateur pamphleteer by vocation, is unexpectedly given a job as a municipal inspector by his uncle. His qualifications for this job are unclear but it is meant to serve as a distraction from his pamphleteering which in his uncle’s eye will bring him to “no conceivable good.” The role and scope of municipal inspector is murky at best. According to the Senior Inspector Mars Levkin their authority is both “unlimited and nonexistent.” Selah, now invested with this ambiguous authority, is permitted access to areas of a not-quite New York City that were previously off limits or in some cases unknown. While his work as an inspector is not the central point of this compelling work it offers a convenient entry into the labyrinthine and seamless narratives of The Way Through Doors.
Early in Selah’s tenure as inspector he witnesses an accident involving a taxi collision with a young woman. Selah brings her to the hospital and identifies himself as her boyfriend even though he has no idea who she is. The fact that the woman carries no identification allows this flimsy ruse to succeed and “Mora Klein,” as Selah names her, is discharged into his care with the caveat that he must ensure that she remain awake for 24 hours due to the concussion she suffered. It is at this point of the book that the “true business” begins. Selah decides to keep Mora conscious by telling her a story. The beginning of his tale, a modified retelling of his ascent to inspector, is the unassuming portal to a brilliant web of artfully constructed narratives that are limned with elements of the unreal juxtaposed with the rituals of the past. Ball’s talent as a contemporary fabulist is clearly on display as Selah, accompanied by his companion, a Guess Artist from the remote realm of Coney Island, traverses the various narratives guided by a map that he made of his life when he was but a child. Selah uses his various tales not only to keep Mora alert but to hopefully tease out her identity.
Identity and vocation are recurring themes throughout the book. After Selah “names” Mora the mysterious girl acquires a unique history that is subsequently presented as fact, and in some instances as part of the public record, for the remainder of the novel. In a lesser writer’s hands the character of the Guess Artist would be reduced to a sideshow spectacle but Ball understands the gravity and dignity of his role along with the unspoken implications of his trade. This dedication is equally evident in Ball’s portrayal of the dead-letter clerk and his wife as well as the sailmaker-who-wished-he-were-an-arcadist. Even though both parties have secret passions they continue to toil with grace in their respective roles. Also, Selah has a deep respect for the office and duties of inspector even though he pursues his pamphleteering work with a near religious devotion. One of the central mysteries in the book is Selah’s magnum opus-in-making, a pamphlet with the enigmatic title of World’s Fair 7 June 1978. It has a talismanic draw for several of the characters and its unknown potential and fluid nature speaks to the heart of this novel. While the familiar tropes of myth and fable are incorporated into Selah’s stories they are artfully reinvented to create a quest novel unlike any other.
Ball’s poetic background is obvious not only in his linguistic precision but in what is left unwritten or speculative. The Way Through Doors is not genre busting, yet it seems to exist on the borderlands of fiction, poetry and the oral tradition. It is a brilliant work that respects and understands the inherent power of story and Ball masterfully creates a world that is familiar, mysterious and utterly captivating." - Sean P. Carroll

"The search for a stranger's history leads down a narrative cul-de-sac in Plimpton Prize-winner Ball's accomplished and clever second novel. When pamphleteer Selah Morse witnesses a taxi run down a young woman, he takes her to the hospital and, in telling the staff that he is her boyfriend and that her name is Mora Klein, is given custody of her. She is amnesiac, and his orders are to reconstruct her memories through story. The book then begins anew, and the narrative folds in upon itself again and again, launching in new directions and each time leaving the earlier story incomplete. Throughout, Morse searches out Mora Klein's identity, picking up other travelers along the way, among them a Coney Island mind reader; a doting husband who may or may not have made a deal with the devil; a love interest for Morse fascinated by the pamphleteer's opus; and a fiddle-playing dog. Though literal-minded readers may struggle to follow Morse's arc as the stories converge and he slips deeper into layers of story, Ball's skill with language and delight in comic absurdity make this an immensely enjoyable, brain-busting experience." - Publishers Weekly

"In poet Jesse Ball’s second novel, The Way Through Doors, a municipal inspector named Selah Morse tries to keep awake a young woman named Mora Klein who has just been in a car accident and suffers amnesia by telling stories about gamblers and Russian empresses and sail makers and foxes and the world’s ugliest woman and the world’s tallest building that’s entirely underground. It is a labyrinth and precocious work of imagination, at times engaging and maddening, that attempts to mimic the way we tell and think about stories and how this relates to the haphazard workings of our mind and how we try to make sense of the world through our scrambled thoughts.
At times it is frustrating in the way the mind is maddening and the reader has to wait for the meaning to tease itself out over long seemingly pointless interludes. As Selah tells his stories, he repeatedly hits dead ends and turns back or pursues a stray narrative strand that separates itself from the starting point.
The connecting element is that Selah is trying to find Mora, who is locked or trapped or forgotten someplace. A bearded man tells Selah that he must pursue her down three separate paths. “The tale is never forward, but always round-about. Your young man must crowd the avenues in his search, and learn to cut doors through pages, through thoughts and guesses.”
These paths have Selah repeating himself with the same characters or similar characters including a guess artist, an inn where Mora seems to be locked on the second floor, the bearded man, a violin-playing dog, a couple that is compared to foxes, and a miniature town that may have been created by Mora (a drawing of it, enclosed in a leaf-like object is repeated throughout the text). It is only through this repetition of elements that patterns start to become clear. Both the author and Selah appear to be searching for meaning through these starts and stops and recalculated structures. “There is nothing so awful as a world that continues after it ought to have failed.”
At first, this is maddening. But Ball has an assured control over his material and his complicated structure, and the multiple stories being told are entertaining enough that I did not lose interest or want to give up on it as an aimless gambit.
However, there was a second element that I found irritating that I didn’t feel so charitable towards. Too often the text traffics in a clever and whimsical self-reference beloved by my young-ish generation, which uses wide-eyed wonder as shorthand for complexity. The characters frequently deliver little monologues about telling stories and how they are in a novel. As the Russian empresses and button cute girls and dogs playing violins pile on top of each other the fantastical starts to become childish. Too often the language is jauntily mannered in the style of a children’s books—the characters skip and strut and poke and clap their hands and say wonderful. In these precious moments I felt like I was reading an adaptation of David Lynch’s Inland Empire as sung by the Decembrists and art directed by Michel Gondry.
But I’m a little torn about simplifying much of what Ball is successful at by griping about his tonal aesthetics. There are writing tricks he uses that I mistakenly dismissed as unnecessary affectations. Ball marks the text not by page numbers but poetic lines, however they are not broken up into strict lines but into units of storytelling and when I paid attention to the marked breaks they revealed units of thoughts and beginning and endings that might not otherwise be obvious.
Towards the ends of the novel, the infantilizing of the texts overwhelms its more compelling elements. There is a malevolent undercurrent to the text that is hinted at but is never explored. Ball writes, “Men are the ones most likely to construct difficult and irrational traps, having as their purpose only to confound us.” Selah meets Mora at the start of the book. She steps out into the street and is hit by a car and he accompanies her to the hospital. When she wakes up and suffers amnesia he pretends to be her boyfriend, he is attracted to her, and in telling her the stories is attempting to incorporate himself into her life as he wasn’t there before.
The Way Through Doors echoes One Thousand and One Nights, with a similar framing device of someone trying to delay or prevent death by telling stories. But where Scheherazade was trying to save herself, Selah is saving Mora while also trying to take advantage of her condition to serve his own ends. In a treatise that Selah and the guess artist discover in a broken violin (don’t ask) is written, “we gain the power to speak lies, to say things that are not true and place them delicately into the minds of those we would conquer.”
This suggests a darker strain behind the storytelling impulse. But the unrelenting playfulness of Ball’s writing ends up diluting any tension the text may have. The reader can’t feel that Mora’s life is in any jeopardy or that the stories have any urgent purpose when the stories can skip wherever they want. We don’t get any clue as to who Selah may be as a person and why and from where he is producing these stories. Primarily there is no real sense that the stories are fragile, as our minds and thoughts are fragile and vulnerable to pain.
There is a world outside the mind with physical truths that cannot be ignored. When Ball’s novel loses that context it is in danger of whisking itself away on its fancy, like a strand of smoke, like a stray thought." - Michael Buening

"Within the first few pages of Jesse Ball's second novel, The Way Through Doors, it's abundantly clear that the book exists in a world not quite our own. While ostensibly set in New York City, the metropolis is treated as a slippery dreamworld, where the Brooklyn dead-letter office is piled two stories high with envelopes and the tallest building is not the Empire State Building, but a secret one that extends deep underground.
As the story begins, a young man named Selah Morse begins work as a municipal inspector in the Seventh Ministry at his powerful uncle's behest. The nature of his work is unknown even to him, but he's given a well-tailored suit (in the manner of those worn by the Albanian secret police, as one character notes) lined with secret pockets, some containing strange letters addressed to him. His office is a strange, Kafkaesque place, accessible only by ladder. During his first day on the job, his message-girl, cat-like Rita, almost poisons him before deciding against it on a whim.
Selah soon settles into his routine, though what exactly his work consists of remains unclear. The story begins to take shape when, one afternoon, Selah witnesses a beautiful stranger run down by a taxicab, striking her head (and only her head). For unexplained reasons, he accompanies the girl to the hospital and pretends to be her boyfriend. He's told that the girl has lost her memories, and that he should create a book about her life so she may remember them again. Most importantly, though she may be discharged, she absolutely cannot fall asleep. Selah christens the girl Mora Klein and decides to keep her awake by telling stories throughout the night.
These stories form the major body of The Way Through Doors. In a structure reminiscent of Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, Ball begins to follow threads of narrative only to drop them and move onto something else entirely, opening up stories within stories like nesting dolls. The Way Through Doors is an inventive and strange little book, toying with the possibilities of narrative while giving us tantalizingly incomplete glimpses at dozens of possible fictions. But even when it appears that the book is ready to disappear into itself, Ball manages to reign in his story, making sure everything, even the loose threads, fit together with a certain sort of internal logic. The Way Through Doors is about good storytelling, and it would be a dismal failure if Ball were not a good enough storyteller to keep up with his subject. Luckily for us, he's more than capable.
Ball's previous work — particularly Vera & Linus, a collection produced in collaboration with his wife Thórdís Björnsdóttir — owes a heavy debt to fairy and folk tales, and this book is no different. At times certain characters and scenarios may veer dangerously towards the twee and much of the dialogue is far from realistic, but if one keeps the author's influences in mind, the book plays out more convincingly (or more acceptably unconvincingly).
In the presentation of the work, Ball eschews page numbers in lieu of what might normally be categorized as line numbers, but in this case function as variable length storytelling units. Each unit, in this context, can consist of dialogue (one or more lines), a single poetic sentence, or a lengthy paragraph. There is something in this unconventional choice that speaks strongly to the power of the book as a printed object. With the page numbers replaced with more elastic place-markers, one's progress through the book becomes less quantifiable and there is a certain magic in being lost without any traditional signposts. Certainly you can look at the book and see how far you've come and how much you have left to read, or you can calculate what "unit" you're reading in the context of the total number within the book, but these are vague, imprecise units of measurement. There's something vaguely subversive in a physical object containing a story of indeterminate length, a paradoxical sort of feeling that would not translate the same if reading on an e-book device like the Kindle.
The value of the printed page plays an important role in the book's narrative as well. The protagonist is a pamphleteer, producing strange, poetic essays and fictions on a large, antique printing press in his apartment. He obsesses over the production of one pamphlet in particular, the evocatively and strangely titled World's Fair 7 June 1978, which captivates a number of the secondary characters and takes on a mystical aura that the story never quite penetrates. Even with all of Ball's literary inventiveness, he could not possibly have produced a vision of the pamphlet itself to rival what is left unseen.
I devoured The Way Through Doors in a single evening, enchanted by the author's prose style and narrative capabilities. While some people may be turned off by the lack of realism and the only faint glimpses of a real human element in the story, the connection I felt with the author as he spun his fictions transcended my need to empathize with the characters within. Like Franz Kafka and Italo Calvino, both obvious influences on the text, Ball is a gifted fabulist and The Way Through Doors is a charming and inventive read." - Bryan McKay

"Like others, I thought at first of a set of nesting-boxes – but then I found myself in the book’s very midst; as I wove through to the end, I realized it was not nesting-boxes, but a Klein bottle, pressed into the pages. Inside and outside are one – is there in fact a way to distinguish which is which? – an ant could walk upon its surface indefinitely, at the middle there is a folding or a nexus which reveals the curious and subtle power events that occur early hold over events that appear to occur later. Bits of plot that seem to be merely tangential to the main story ultimately undermine the story itself, and, in the process, they reveal themselves to be fare more important than the insignificant bits they appear to be. The effect, for the reader, is one of trying to translate a four-dimensional structure into a three-dimensional structure: you feel you must be missing something, some twist or arc, but, flipping back through pages, there are only ever what one character terms “dissipate geographies.”
Reviewers attempting to explain Jesse Ball’s second novel The Way through Doors have relied on a formula that has typically answered quite well: they’ve begun at the beginning. Yet that reasonable enough strategy does not do justice to this strange, shifting, multi-layered, at times irritating, at times transcendent work.
I say we ought to begin, rather, at the center, and work outwards. A beautiful Russian empress, snubbed by her beloved count, sets about systematically dismantling his happy life. For her last vindictive act, she organizes a strange and horrifying parade of “misshapen and frightening folk…dwarves and giants, beasts and patch-skinned dogs” to accompany the forced marriage – a public spectacle complete with lepers and fire – of the count to Kolya, the ugliest of women. The newlyweds are led to an ice palace where the consummation of their marriage is likewise displayed for all to see. Once the humiliations have ceased and the couple is alone, the count and the ugliest of women converse tenderly, speaking of a book both have read, which “constructed architectures, impossible places, dreams of impossible places”:
Of these [says Kolya] a needle, larger than the tallest house, stabbed down into the sand at the sea’s edge. It rises from the sand only enough for a single plank, a walkway, to run out from its center. This plank runs out across the sea, inches above the shuddering waves. It runs for miles, and a curious thing begins to happen as the walkway tends farther and farther from the shore.
– I have read this book, said the count. Beneath the plank, the sea begins to fall away, and the plank becomes steeper and steeper, and harder to climb. Miles pass in this way. Finally, there begin to be handholds, and footholds, ladder rungs in the plank…. At the top, one finds that one has reached another needle, this sunk into an island so far offshore from the first needle that it was not visible…
– It is so lovely, said Kolya, how then there is another ladder, down along the side of the needle. One proceeds to the island of the anchored needle, where a small cabin sits, and someone is waiting with a bit of lunch and a pot of tea. Someone kind whom you have known a very long while. She comes to the door and plain upon her face is her joy at your arrival.
This exchange marks the point at which a series of stories within stories comes to the deepest story embedded in the stack, and here it pauses to turn around and study itself. The count relates another episode in the book of which he and Kolya have been speaking: “And all the while…someone murmuring, Who can say therefore where a certain person is, for what is it that anchors a person? Is it their place in the story to which you are a part? Many stories hereabouts run side by side, and you cannot be at pains to unpin them, for they are sharp, and you will only sting the tips of your fingers.”
There are indeed many stories running side by side – and the tips of your fingers will experience existential stinging should you try to unravel them. For it isn’t clear until the middle of the book that the trails of stories comprising the first half of The Way through Doors actually have been running along parallel tracks. Now they intertwine in the count’s and Kolya’s relation of the story, itself called World’s Fair 7 June 1978, which may itself be the unwritten story of the story of the stories. From this point onwards, please do not say you haven’t been warned.
But there in the count’s quote, too, lies one of the central questions of The Way through Doors: “Who can say therefore where a certain person is, for what is it that anchors a person?” The problem at the outset of the novel, and running all through it in a way, is the location of a particular person, or rather, of that person’s mind and identity The initial premise is this: young pamphleteer Selah Morse, newly hired as a municipal inspector at the odd Seventh Ministry, sees a young woman get hit by a taxi. She loses her memory. He escorts her to the hospital, pretends to be her boyfriend, gives her a name – Mora Klein – and brings her back to his flat, where he proceeds, as per doctor’s orders, to keep her awake for eighteen hours by telling her stories, so that she may try to recover her memory.
Yet, while this storytelling would seem to be a framing device, it is not. The initial circumstances are broken up and scattered through Doors: they resurface at intervals, distorted, melting into the stories themselves, so that swimming within the various narratives is the story of Morse searching for Klein, trying and failing to recover a sense of her past. Morse begins by detailing the beginning of his employment, which leads into a story told by a Chinese woman about a young husband who unwisely wagers his wife in a bet, which then drifts into a story of Morse and a peculiar guess artist, which then … and then … and so forth, until the episode with the count and Kolya.
After their talk of the World’s Fair 7 June 1978, the count tells Kolya a dream that he had, in which he visits a friend and the friend’s wife on a country estate, and is walking on a fine day when,
I realized what had been lurking just beyond the edges of my comprehension: the things that people were saying to one another, the way that one action blended into another, the shifting times of day, and the pleasures of companionship, but most of all the dialogue: we were in a novel. There was no other explanation. No one spoke like this in ordinary life, picking up every inch of what had been said, and delivering it back with a twist and a nuance. It had not happened just once. I felt that each remark somehow carried with it the implication of all others previous. One felt very clearly a comprehending intelligence strung through the air, setting each new moment into motion. I wrested myself out of the necessity to do and say without decision, the leash that had accompanied my passage hitherto through the book that was all about me, and a further thought occurred to me: how could a person wander into a novel?
Such moments of meta-narrative, of the self-awareness of the text, have of course been performed elsewhere before, but what saves this instance is the answer to the question of how, indeed, a person could wander into a novel: “It must be a dream.” In his dream, the count explains to his friend that they are both in a dream; the friend refuses to believe him; the count leaves with a great sadness; and that story leaves us, twisting instead back to Morse’s search for Klein.
At this point, by most standards of logic, the resurfacing of the story of Morse’s search for Klein seems to occur within a dream, itself a story being told within another story being told by a character who is attempting to guess what yet another character is thinking, and so on back to the beginning of the story (we never do find out whether the guesser is correct), which is itself a relation of Morse’s search for Klein, in a way, as he casts about for some means of keeping her awake for eighteen hours. Incidentally, The Way through Doors certainly feels as though it might have been written in the space of a particularly feverish eighteen hours – that is both part of its charm and part of what is vexing to the logical mind. The unraveling-in-reverse of Morse’s story, from the midpoint with the count, back to the beginning of the novel, reveals nothing more or less than a set of stories within stories, and it certainly does little to prepare the reader for the more complex interweaving of plots in the second half of the novel; were there something to be gained from such an exercise, it might be comforting to this hypothetical logical mind, might say something about the ultimate order of the universe.
But most of us – even the most logical-minded of us – do not rely on novels to confirm the ultimate order of the universe. One simply expects order, and Ball denies it. This is not done maliciously, but the novel would almost be more persuasive if it were. Gone from The Way through Doors is the sense of ineffable malice pervading Ball’s earlier works, the novel Samedi the Deafness and the Plimpton-Prize-winning novella, The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr. That sense of deviousness drives those two works, tempers their moments of lightness so that, where there are excesses of seeming nonsense and disorder, they may be more easily forgiven. No such tempering in The Way through Doors, which is both a reasonable and problematic absence.
So Morse tells Klein stories to keep her from falling asleep, as a means of passively helping her recover her sense of identity. While the two are in the hospital near the beginning of the novel, a doctor makes the following suggestion to Morse: “It would be helpful for you to construct a book for her, detailing her past circumstances. Such memory aids can help patients regain what they’ve lost.”
The question then becomes: does what follows this book – this “memory aid” – in fact detail her past circumstances? In all likelihood, no, as Morse and Klein have only just met. However, all we know of Klein is what Morse tells us of her – and much of that is revealed in the second half of the novel, where, as I said, the boxes-within-boxes metaphor ceases to be meaningful and, in its place, something transdimensional feels more apt. In the second half of The Way through Doors, Morse becomes more urgent in his attempt to “find” Klein, joining forces with a guess-artist (one of Ball’s cleverer inventions here) who can, with 33 and 1/3 percent accuracy, guess what a given person is thinking about at a given time. A young Japanese couple (June and Takashi Kawagata) encounters the guess artist, for example, and he says
–You are both thinking the same thing…. You are wondering whether the sun will ever go down, since you have been traveling now for six years on airplanes, staying ahead of the sun, and you have finally decided today to let yourselves see a sunset. –That’s not true, said June. I design robots for use in private industry. We have an apartment on the West side.
–Okay, said the guess artist. Three chances, right?
–Okay, said June. Shoot.
–You’re thinking about the cat you had when you were a child. There was one spot on its fur, to the left of its tail, which would never sit smoothly. The fur always stuck up. Somehow you thought that because the fur was always sticking up there, the world could never reward anyone with exactly what they wanted. This belief was for a long time unconscious in your head, but earlier today you realized why you believe what you believe. Furthermore, now you feel that it is certainly true. The cat died when you were nine. It is buried by the gate of your parents’ house in Tensshu.
–What is the cat’s name? asked June.
–You are being very careful not to think of the cat’s name, said the guess artist.
Then his expression changed. He looked at Takashi.
–The cat’s name was Octopus.
June gave Takashi a withering look.
–Don’t you have any self-control? she asked.
Takashi shrugged.
June looked at the guess artist.
–You’re pretty good, she said.
Through a series of fleeting encounters like this scattered throughout The Way though Doors, the guess artist – apparently a feature of Morse’s story to Klein – becomes one of the more real characters in the novel. Likewise, Morse’s construction of Klein within the story (within the story within the story…and then out again through the rabbit hole) is more real than the glance we have of her (whomever she actually is) at the novel’s beginning. It isn’t so much that Ball is utilizing the rather shopworn conceit about the impossibility of defining “true” identity; the message is more diffuse than that. Rather, though the restless taking-up and casting-off of various narratives, what becomes clear is that the one “true” idea is of the desire for connection. Here stories begin, but they do not meet their endings, save for the ending in which Morse finally finds Klein. His search for her, constructed as it is of his own imagination, is both touching and the only really unbroken thread in The Way through Doors.
There are difficulties along the way, however. A few things that are more maddening than they are useful to this novel:
1. This book lacks page numbers; instead the paragraphs are numbered.
2. There are several large black dots at various points in the text.
3. There are also many odd sketches.
As for the first, Ball is emulating the ancient tradition of numbering the paragraphs of texts. The most generous interpretation is that it’s a gesture to his work as a poet, although it strikes the reader as a rather presumptuous eye to posterity. As for the second, I cannot speculate; Samedi The Deafness was similarly peppered with images of garden-shears to no discernable effect (save passing confusion).
As for the pictures – little inscrutable sketches – they seem to be intended to illustrate certain points. For example, one such sketch apparently illustrates a woman grabbing a man’s ear, but if you saw it in isolation you would think no such thing (rather it looks like a piece of chalk collapsing upon the number “4”). Klein herself is meant to have created some of the sketches, all of which are meant to be the same sketch (a sort of shell containing small houses) but not all of which are actually the same. The deeper meaning here is at best elusive and at worst obfuscating. The sketches, and the narrative wanderings they represent, constantly distance the reader from the task at hand, the search for Klein.
But! Dwelling overlong on this last point would destroy what is ultimately so lovely and mysterious about both Samedi the Deafness and The Way through Doors. (The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr represents, on the other hand, what wonders a deft hand at tightening might have done for the novels: it is nearly flawless in its execution, it is tragic and ridiculous and plaintive, and it sacrifices none of the bizarre wit of his longer works.) Ball’s self-fascinated waggishness in The Way through Doors can try the reader’s patience, particularly in final third of the book, which tracks the misadventures of Morse and the guess artist down what seems at first but turns out later perhaps not to be an enormous underground staircase to be welcomed by what seems at first but turns out later perhaps not to be a family living in a vast subterranean field – and then back to an inn via a sort of teleportation, where they crack open fiddles to find hidden messages, and it goes on in this way. Morse’s desire to “find” Klein becomes more urgent just as the narrative itself begins to resist any sort of forward motion.
Lost in that switchbackery I began to feel a vague sort of resentment, as though I was being in some way duped. At this point in Doors, the clustering of stories-inside-stories gets submerged under the overarching narrative; any side-steps to other smaller narratives are always complete in and of themselves so that Morse and the guess artist may continue in their quest. Evaporated is the slippery charm of the first half of the book, in which one plot bleeds into the next and narrators flow and succeed each other with the ease and grace of ocean waves. In its place are a halting and rather self-indulgent run of riddles like spun sugar: they are interesting to experience, they may taste pleasant in the moment, but too much and they begin to cloy, and they hold no nutritional value whatsoever.
Which struggles, perhaps, a reader must go through in order to better appreciate the last handful of pages in The Way through Doors. As when Morse finally returns to his offices and Rita – the message girl at the Seventh Ministry – breathes into his ear the beginnings of the final story of Doors:
We laughed when we were told that we would one day lose our skin and become piles of bones that had no laughter in them. And we knew too that this was a lie, for once a thing has happened once, it cannot be stopped from happening again and again. Events are continuous, not broken, and they never move on. Stories tell themselves to one another, over and over, never ceasing, and we skip here and there, saying that 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?
Here you have the author at his version of the sublime, a marvel the elegance of which is thrown into relief by the follies of the past several pages. Rita here presses upon another underlying desire in The Way through Doors, that of trying to capture the very act of relating such a complex narrative as the novel itself presents. If Ball drops one strand, it is deliberate, a way of saying that what seems to be movement (from one plot to the next) is instead the act of standing still and selecting what you will see, hear, or understand, and what you will not. What is missing from The Way through Doors is what Rita lingers over at the end of the quote, for there is no remaining within the novel itself – there is only ever the reader who remains, and the events and stories which continue.
From here Morse and Klein find one another and the book ends on a haunting note. As with a Klein bottle, here we are tossed outwards onto something that will turn back inwards on itself – for we never actually reach again the “real” circumstances at the beginning of The Way through Doors: this final portion of the book, including the reunion of the lovers, is itself narrated by Rita, whose story is being told by someone else, and so on. The framing device is in this sense something of a red herring. The last and loveliest bit of The Way through Doors is itself a story folded into a story." - Lianne Habinek

"Should we consider the latest publication from Jesse Ball his first or his second novel? Though in order of publication, The Way Through Doors came after his supposed debut Samedi the Deafness, released 18 months ago, apparently Ball wrote TWTD a few months before StD.
Regardless of the actual order of writing, The Way Through Doors resembles an idea more fully realized than the charming, if at times spotty, StD. The book begins in a Kafkaesque manner, with main character Selah Morse being given a job by his uncle, who resembles an old New York political boss, as a municipal inspector. This job exists for the purpose, as Selah later determines, of throwing a cog in otherwise normal routines, disrupting the status quo if only for a moment.
What begins as something of a look at the internal machinations of a labyrinthine governmental institution shifts when Selah witnesses a young woman get hit by a taxi, which causes her to lose her memory. For reasons unknown, Selah decides to pose as the woman’s boyfriend, takes her to the hospital, and ultimately has her discharged into his care with the caveat that he must keep her awake for 18 hours.
The set-up could be considered somewhat contrived, but the joy of the subsequent storytelling quickly washes away any issues with the opening sequence as Selah begins telling a story to the young woman to keep her awake. The first story blends into a second story back into reality, or a version thereof, into a fourth story &c creating what is a highly fractured novel presented seamlessly:
Upon coming to a threshold one should always consider the possibility that there may be something hostile awaiting one within. Also, there may be some great pleasure, which, with its sudden and implacable onset of joy, may disarm one even more than the deepest hostility.
The novel is peopled with a bevy of quirky characters: a guess artist, foxes masquerading as humans, a clerk and his wife who live in the dead letter room of the post office, and a man who loses only one gamble his entire life. As with the various storylines, these characters weave in and out of the prose at Ball’s whim.
Ultimately, the question must be what is the purpose of all this storytelling? Purportedly Selah is attempting to discover who the young woman is by presenting a succession of possibilities in the hopes that one is, or is at least close, to her actual existence, thus causing her memory to return.
There are some minor inconsistencies, or at least questionable decisions, in the novel. Ball uses multiple font sizes, which seems initially to be a good way to both blend and differentiate the various story threads. However, the smaller font size is used so infrequently that it raises confusion as to its purpose, and not the controlled and purposeful confusion the majority of the novel rests on. This odd decision does not significantly hamper the overall success of the novel, but it does add a slight blemish to an otherwise well conceived work.
Ball’s work has inspired critics to conjure up various names to try and describe his unique voice. The predecessors that seem to be called upon the most are Kafka, Calvino, and Borges. While these are apt comparisons in many respects, there is a different writer who seems to be largely forgotten: Alain Robbe-Grillet. Like Robbe-Grillet, Ball’s prose has a detached, almost mechanical, nature that differentiates it from the warmer and more personal prose of Kafka, Calvino, and Borges. To call Kafka warm is perhaps a bit unexpected, but reading his stories feels like he is baring a portion of his own soul. Ball seems either distant or unemotional, with little personal investment in the outcome of the story. Robbe-Grillet, particularly in In the Labyrinth, creates a similarly styled narrative of removal.
Ball has the ability only a few remarkable storytellers do of making the story secondary to the beautiful way in which the story is written. Though the content of the novel does not have the obvious weight of a political topic or that ‘great American novel’ slant, what this novel delivers with its thorough expression of a singular thought results in a haunting, captivating story that will linger with readers long after the final page has been closed." - Andrew Wessels

"If you like fiction in which stories are nested within each other, tumbling and turning inside and out like a narrative mobius strip - well, this is the book for you. But if you're someone who prefers realism, a classic three-act narrative arc, characters with depth, and all the trappings of "normal" fiction - well, you're probably not going to like this.
The book's almost pointless framing device occurs when a young man in a New York-like metropolis of indefinite period sees a young woman knocked down by a taxi. He takes her to the hospital, where she lies in a coma, and the doctors tell the young man he must keep her mind occupied for 18 hours by talking to her. Thus, he starts spinning a tale, although it rather quickly becomes questionable as to whether he's telling stories, or stories are telling him.
It's all rather clever and tricksy in a McSweenysesque manner: the young man is a "pamphleteer" and the stories introduce the reader to all manner oddities, such as the tallest building in the city (which is actually subterranean and may iactually be a foxes den), an inn with a fiddle-playing dog, a mind-reading companion of remarkable acuity, a girl who is born with the ability to draw a line straighter than any device known to man, the world's luckiest gambler, and so on. Just to give a taste, this is the kind of book where a man's job comes with authority that is "unlimited and nonexistent." If you find that kind of phrase compelling, you might well enjoy the book.
It's an interesting world, but one so topsy-turvey that you can't really try and make sense of it, you just need to let the writing wash over you. There are lots of nice turns of phrase, and the author clearly has style to burn. The question is whether or not it adds up to anything by the end. And with a book like this, there are sure to be a set of readers who find the experience magical, and another set who find it rather empty. I'm somewhere in the middle - I enjoyed some of the style, but it didn't end up sparking much of anything in me, despite its evident interest in themes of identity, passage, and vocation. But it's certainly worth trying if you like contemporary experimental fiction (for example, Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves ) or the work fabulists like Calvino or Borges." - Tony Ross

"Once upon a time, there was only one way to write a novel. You thought up your setting, then you peopled it with characters, and you decided what you wanted to happen to all of them. The endeavor was usually completely solitary, and when it was all over, you had a novel.
Only comparatively recently in the novel’s long history did an alternative to this process present itself. Sometime in the mid 20th century a few writers began abandoning the old method; they began disdaining plot, not caring if their characters were consistent or what happened to them, and complaining about the strictures of tradition.
And so, Jesse Ball.
The young author of the new novel The Way Through Doors has a track record when it comes to this sort of self-indulgence. The only reason such a track record doesn’t merit him instant and silent dismissal is that his last novel, Samedi the Deafness, was actually good. True, large parts of it still read like first drafts, whimsies, even outlines, and it could be arrogant. But large parts of it also weren’t arrogant—and that, when combined with Ball’s undeniable if intermittent ear for a memorable phrase (and a heartfelt if erratic penchant for winning sentimentality), was enough to lift it above many of its peers and make it a credibly enjoyable little book.
Once a young writer produces a book like that, some readers (no doubt irrationally) want him to do more.
Careful, then, what you wish for: in The Way Through Doors (whoever titled Samedi the Deafness clearly had the day off), Ball does a little more. A very little more. So little more that if he did any less, he’d be doing nothing more at all. Out of its 2,690 sentences (in a stupefying gesture of egotism, the book’s prose is numbered every ten lines or so, like something out of Homer), something like sixteen show an artistic improvement over Samedi the Deafness. The Way Through Doors is roughly sixteen sentences better than Samedi the Deafness, and it’s through those sixteen sentences that the book lays legitimate claim to our attention.
Here’s the point in a review where the reviewer would helpfully synopsize the book’s plot in order to facilitate the discussion of its execution. But as in the magical realists who so clearly showed Ball the path of his indolence, plot has become a problematic term.
Nevertheless, here goes: a young man named Selah Morse, a ne’er-do-well writer of pamphlets, is summoned by his uncle and given a position in the Seventh Ministry, Department of Municipal Inspection, a desk job his uncle hopes will straighten him out. After he’s been working there several months, Selah happens to witness a pretty young woman, whom he calls Mora, get hit by a car. He rushes her to the hospital, where it transpires she remembers nothing of the accident—or of her entire life. Selah proceeds to create a life for her and tell her all about it, and by that point Ball has created the basic scaffolding of a book, however twee and self-indulgent.
The nominal device of the book—that everything in it (up to a point, sort of) is just stories made up by Selah on the spot and told to a listening Mora—would allow Ball to claim artistic license for any plot or narrative laziness, but that’s mighty damn convenient—either Selah is one crappy storyteller, or Ball needs to devise better tricks.
And if tricks are of no avail, why play them? In The Way Through Doors more than in anything else he’s ever produced, Ball gives a drastically twofold impression: that he knows that so much of what he’s doing is trickery (and therefore empty trickery), and that he might just intend to keep doing it anyway.
But in any case, it’s time to knock it off. Page after page of this is simply too much indulgence to give an author like Ball, whose pussy-footing with such gimmickry is so often balanced, in Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors, by something real, the germ of the genuine. It’s when the two things are dancing cheek-to-cheek in the latter that they’re at their most frustrating. Ball can turn from using words in whatever way first strikes him, revision be damned, his readers’ intelligence be damned, to using them with the care and precision of a writer twice his age, as in this exchange between the young lovers at the book’s end:
—I am going to get some breakfast for us [Selah tells Mora]. I will be back in a minute.
—Then we will meet over there, said Mora. pointing to a place on the beach. Let us agree to say that when you return with our breakfast that you have been gone a month. This month to come will be my secret month, one of the two months that Elia Amblin slept. For even a girl without a memory should have secrets that she knows. She of all people for whom everything is a secret.
—But how will you live for a month? asked Selah.
He felt the hot morning sun on his face, and it was good. He could feel the circumstances all around him easing. And before him, this tricksome, winsome girl.
—A month is not so long when it is morning time, she said.
If his next book only has sixteen more good sentences than The Way Through Doors, Ball’s readers will be justified in simply walking away. Those sixteen additional good sentences in The Way Through Doors have a clear meaning (over and above warranting Ball our critical attention), and that meaning is a message to their author: get a friend who’s an editor. Revise your material. Drop the God-help-us verse-numbering. Cut out the empty trickery. Knock it off. You’ve got work to do, and we want to see it." - Steve Donoghue
Jesse Ball, Samedi the Deafness (Vintage, 2007)

"One morning in the park James Sim discovers a man, crumpled on the ground, stabbed in the chest. In the man's last breath, he whispers his confession: Samedi.
What follows is a spellbinding game of cat and mouse as James is abducted, brought to an asylum, and seduced by a woman in yellow. Who is lying? What is Samedi? And what will happen on the seventh day?"

"The title isn't the only odd thing about poet Jesse Ball's ultra-atmospheric first novel, which seems destined to confound some and mesmerize others. No reader could be more confused than the protagonist, James Sim. He comes across a dying man outside the White House who claims he's been fatally wounded by a man named Samedi. But when the story makes the papers, it's described as a suicide. Even more curious, a suicide follows every day thereafter, each with a mysterious note from Samedi attached. Who, or what, is Samedi?
Sim doesn't have time to wonder before he's kidnapped and installed in a "verisylum," a sanitorium for chronic liars. Suspended somewhere between captive and willing guest, he stays on, unsure why he's there, unsure why he doesn't just leave. Much of it has to do with a young woman named Grieve, an asylum resident and co-conspirator; as David Lynch would put it, she's full of secrets. So is Sim -- he's a man with a photographic memory.
Ball has an original voice; much of the novel is delivered in spare, mannered paragraphs. It owes a bit to nouveau roman, the French literary movement, and even more to expressionism -- in the verisylum, all the maids are named Grieve as well, and the house cat changes names depending on its behavior. Conventional mystery fans may find the fugue-world of Samedi the Deafness more admirable than enjoyable, but Ball has hidden a real story in his house of mirrors for those with the patience to explore it." - Kevin Allman

"Unspecified cataclysm threatens in this unconventional debut spy fable from poet Ball. As mysterious suicides are staged daily on the White House lawn, James Sim, a loner and professional mnemonist (someone who can memorize large amounts of data), comes upon a man stabbed in a park. The man's dying words cast light on garbled notes left by the White House suicides that threaten something very big and very bad in seven days' time. Following the dead man's clues (over seven days in as many chapters), Sim cracks ciphers, explores hidden passages of a fictional, labyrinth-like "verisylum" and struggles to find a straight answer about Samedi, the figure seemingly at the center of the matter. The suicides continue, and the only good advice comes from female pickpocket Grieve, who goes by false names, spies on Sim and falls for him. There are flashbacks to conversations with Sim's childhood imaginary friend (an invisible red owl named Ansilon) and a detailed, history of the fictional 18th-century inventor of the verisylum. Ball writes scenes that read like prose poetry and cultivates a Beckett-like alienated digression rather than standard plot mechanics. The results are highly imaginative but hard going." - Publishers Weekly

"A young man with an unusual gift is drawn into a multifarious conspiracy. Poet Ball uses the language of his trade to breathe life into his inspired thriller about memory, truth and the unsound constructs in which we house these ethereal concepts. His protagonist, James Sim, is an unlikely hero-and possibly an unreliable observer-who is saddled with a peculiar talent for remembering things, a condition known as mnemonics. By extension, the odd turn of events that overwhelm him over the next seven days are described with a delicious dichotomy that alternates between linguistic precision and cinematic slight-of-hand. After he witnesses a man named McHale stabbed to death, Sim cautiously investigates the murder. Soon the amateur detective confronts his only lead, a man named Estrainger, who leaps from a high window to his death. Sim postulates that the murders are connected to a rash of ritualistic suicides outside the White House; each victim was carrying dire warnings from a revolutionary with the moniker "Samedi." For his trouble, Sim is kidnapped by McHale's doppelganger and taken to a "verisylum," a baffling treatment center for chronic liars. It is here that Sim finds a familiar face, Grieve (aka Lily Violet), who may or may not have a look-alike of her own. The institution's arcane rules of discourse are staggeringly tricky. "The idea is that when many lies are told, unfettered by immediate comparison to fact, they end up comprising a kind of truth. On that truth too lies can be based," the second McHale tells Sim. Working within this unsteady structure, Sim struggles to understand his place in the scheme and identify the "plague of deafness" that Samedi promises to deliver on anill-mannered world. Truth and beauty are largely absent in Sim's story, and his otherworldly adventure comes to a vivid but ambiguous end. Yet for all the novel's twists and turns, Ball is clearly in love with language, and this uncommon adventure is an apt delivery vehicle for his own substantial gifts. An unorthodox detective story-the author's fiction debut-that uses poetry to sharpen its edge." - Kirkus Reviews

"Much of Jesse Ball’s delicious first novel, “Samedi the Deafness,” takes place in an inventive institution called a verisylum, an asylum for chronic liars (conveniently located near Washington). And while the Samedi part of the title becomes lucid early on, the deafness isn’t explained until Page 254. That’s fair warning: Readers who long for instant clarity will be frustrated. But anyone with a taste for the elusive will find that this smart, audacious work becomes as gripping as a good thriller, which it partially resembles.
Like the early Thomas Pynchon and more lately Colson Whitehead, Mr. Ball creates a world nearly identical to ours, which operates on one significantly different principle: Your most paranoid fears are likely to be true. The novel’s hero, James Sim, may be deluded or he may be the sanest man in that troubled place. It’s clear that his world is not quite ours, because he makes his living as a mnemonist, memorizing things for some shadowy company.
On one Sunday morning Sim goes for a walk in the park and spots a dying, apparently murdered man, who with his last breath says he has been part of a conspiracy run by someone called Samedi. Just an hour later Sim sees a newspaper report about a suicide on the White House lawn; a note signed by Samedi was left next to the body threatening a tragedy of biblical proportions in seven days. (The novel’s seven chapters are organized by days, and the ominous “Day the Seventh” is a Saturday, samedi in French.) With his clue from the dead man, Sim feels responsible for averting the apocalyptic event, if such a event is really being plotted.
The novel sets this up quickly. After chasing and being chased by Samedi’s thugs — there is a pistol involved, and a deadly leap from a window — Sim is soon kidnapped and brought to the verisylum, the novel’s wittiest creation. Lying is “an illness peculiar to our times,” an official of the institution explains. (Of course he could be lying.) Yet the verisylum follows a cure formulated in the 19th century that demands residents follow precise, arbitrary house rules.
If you want to speak to someone, the rule book instructs, first ring a bell; everyone around you will freeze. Then wait 15 seconds for the person you intend to address to collect his or her thoughts. The theory is that all these rules will help a liar create a new, stable identity out of some elaborately constructed fiction.
So far the theory isn’t working. Sim falls in love with a woman named Grieve — many of the verisylum women are named Grieve — whom he had met outside the institution when she claimed to be Anastasia and later Lily Violet. She is probably Samedi’s daughter, but is she part of the conspiracy or the key to Sim’s salvation?
We share Sim’s perspective enough to be doubtful about everything, yet Mr. Ball establishes enough distance so that we also see Sim’s naïveté. There are moments that are the literary equivalent of thinking, “Don’t go in the house,” during a horror film.
The novel’s enigmatic style suits a world in which truth itself is kaleidoscopic, but such fictions are deadly if they’re portentous or self-important. Mr. Ball is playful and light-handed enough to avoid those traps. He doesn’t even allude to some obvious connections: the Cretan who says all Cretans are liars, or the voodoo character Baron Samedi, a spirit of death. He doesn’t lean too hard (maybe not hard enough) on the unmistakable political theme, even when Sim discovers a book written by Samedi that proclaims, “The nation that must be humbled is the nation in which the most had once been possible.”
Mr. Ball, now 29, has been a visiting artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and he has already published a volume of poetry, “March Book.” And he has moved beyond the arty pretension of “Vera and Linus,” a 2006 book of short prose and drawings created with Thordis Bjornsdottir, his wife, in which the obscure title characters owe a great deal to fairy tales. Well, he hasn’t completely left those pretensions behind; Sim has too many boyhood memories of Ansilon, the invisible speaking owl who was his only friend.
But Mr. Ball’s interests in poetry, fairy tales and visual art come together gracefully here. Sim is given an imagination so vivid that objects are almost animate to him. The book is designed so that its briefest sections are snippets, creating a look with much white space that captures the evocative, down-the-rabbit-hole nature of a work in which readers have to fill in some blanks. And like any good thriller writer he comes through with a definite conclusion to the story yet still allows room for mystery and interpretation.
He explains in a brief author’s note that he wrote the book while living near a cemetery in Scotland, and in tribute named some characters after people buried there, a list that includes Grieve and Lily Violet. Even Sim suspected that Lily Violet’s name was too good to be true, and for all we know, it is. Everything in the pages of this novel may be in doubt, but Jesse Ball’s gifts as a writer are real." - Caryn James

"On a Sunday morning in a Washington park, James Sim – loner and professional mnemonist (someone who can memorize large amounts of data) - is witness to the aftermath of a stabbing. With his dying breath, Thomas McHale tells James: “I was one of them, but I left, and they didn’t want me to leave. Have you seen the paper? Samedi? The conspirators? I was one of them…You must do it. You must expose them.” The “them” in question is a group of individuals who commit suicide in front of the White House, one each day, all bearing a message from Samedi of doom to come on the seventh day.
McHale leaves James with a few clues; however, he is loath to get involved until a chance encounter with a young woman spurs him to action. James sets off to follow the dead man’s clues and, in the process, ends up a prisoner in an asylum for liars. As he searches for truth amidst the lies, James struggles to find out who Samedi is and what will happen on the seventh day.
Samedi the Deafness is the very strange novel from poet Jesse Ball. His language is terse yet lyrical, evoking a feeling that each word is carefully planned for and placed. “He looked at the napkin. He felt then that there were two of them in the room, he and the napkin, and that one of them would have to go. He crumpled up the napkin.” Even when dialogue is of little sense to the reader, each word is weighty:
James drew from his pocket a book, drew from the book a pressed flower, and shook from the flower a bit of stone shaped like a crescent moon.
- Here it is, he said. I found it in the passage by the cellar.
They were both silent. Grieve took the stone.
- You mustn’t go there again, she said. You might meet me there, and then we would be through.
A dark name like a walking stick broken in anger.
- When I am out on the wind, said Grieve, I wear four arms and the trails of my dress consume me.
- Before you say any more, said James, say no more.
And so no more was said.
As Ball states in an interview, “Samedi is an investigation of lies and responsibility.” Despite this clear statement of intent, and the ease with which it reads, reality is quickly undermined in Samedi. This is a novel which will frustrate, confound and challenge readers, who will quickly feel as if they’ve fallen down the rabbit hole into a David Lynch film where political commentary is provided by Hunter S. Thompson.
This is not a comfortable read; just when the reader is sure they’ve understood what is happening, Ball flips the tables. He delights in misdirection. Not only is the main female character named Grieve, but many of the maids are named Grieve as well. Nothing in the verisylum is simple: characters’ dialogue can’t be trusted as this is an asylum for liars; the house is a veritable labyrinth with absurd rules of conduct; and it is often unclear which residents are patients and which are the staff. At times the confusion is such that readers may wonder if James is a patient of the asylum and early events are purely his delusions. Lies form the foundation of Samedi the Deafness – but can truth be found in the midst of deceit?
The character of Samedi has direct ties to “Baron Samedi,” the all-knowing loa of death from the Voodoo tradition, known for disruption, obscenity, debauchery. It should come as no surprise that Ball has chosen to take that disruptive influence for his work which undermines the very concept of the novel.
His underlying message is vital; readers who choose to fall into his dream world will find unexpected and important rewards hidden within." - Janelle Martin

"Is a book that appears immediately in paperback the literary equivalent of a movie sent straight-to-video? I pondered that question briefly before purchasing Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness; ultimately, I chose an optimistic point of view, deciding instead to sneer at the hardcover as an archaic status symbol, a method by which publishing houses can squeeze a few extra dollars out of the earnest reader. It was not, I decided while heading toward the cash register, a reflection of the quality of this work, for the back cover proclaimed Samedi worthy of Kafka, Hitchcock, and Lynch. I chose to believe that such praise was well deserved, complimenting myself on finding a hidden gem, a masterpiece that had slipped through the cracks.
OK, so I was feeling optimistic that morning. In my natural, cynical state, I would have laughed at the obviously empty praise of the cover blurb, knowing full well that one never actually believes what is found there. For once, though, I’m thankful I enjoyed a brief moment of rosy vision, as Ball does deliver an adequate, thought-provoking tale full of surrealism, ambiguity, and absurdism. He doesn’t reach the heights attained by the greats to which he’s compared, but Samedi the Deafness is a quick, intelligent read that, while it probably won’t astound, will at least perplex and entertain.
Ball has created a world where truth is an illusion and nothing is as it seems. The narrator, James Sim, is a mnemonist, one who is capable of remembering large quantities of information.You’d think this makes him reliable as a narrator; however, when everyone lies, no information can truly be believed. The novel begins as Sim buys a newspaper and sits in a park to read. Soon, however, he hears a shout and, upon investigation, finds a man who has been stabbed several times. Sim questions him and learns that his death has been precipitated by a mysterious figure named Samedi (literally “Saturday,” in French), the ringleader behind a great conspiracy involving suicides carried out on the White House lawn. With his last breath, the dying man urges Sim to expose Samedi and his followers.
Although Sim’s first instinct is to run away and forget the whole affair, he soon finds himself further drawn into the mystery; when he does finally make an effort to investigate, he is drawn irrevocably into a world of shadows and lies. He soon ends up at a verisylum, built for the treatment of chronic liars, cases in which one’s lying compromises the identity of the individual. In Samedi, identity is insubstantial; it is the sum of both the actual truth (whatever that is) and one’s fictions about oneself. As one employee of the verisylum explains, “when many lies are told, unfettered by immediate comparison to fact, they end up comprising a kind of truth.”
Inmates of the verisylum spend their days playing Rovnin, a Russian game which involves the creation of “proxies,” or fictional players who aid, abet, or foil one’s schemes. Samedi the Deafness is Rovnin on a large scale, and Sim never knows whether any given “friend” is at any given time an ally or a foe. To be fair, Ball’s idea is hardly a new one. Better authors have made better use of this idea. Ball’s strength lies in his style, which is austere yet poetic.
The only drawback to Samedi the Deafness is its finale. The plot races toward Saturday, the culmination of Samedi’s efforts. Had he not attempted to explain Samedi’s motivation I might be more appeased, since a lack of explanation would seem in line with his absurdist streak. Unfortunately, that is not quite the case. That he does attempt a deeper explanation of Samedi’s plot is all the worse, since his explanation is weak and poorly explored. Ball excels at creating suspense and tension, and he’s created such a build up for the denouement that one can’t help but feel left down that he doesn’t explore the depths he was capable of reaching. Better luck next time." - Jennifer McKeown

"It is often said that the sign of a true master painter is how he or she chooses to deal with space and so-called "negative space." Amateurs feel compelled to fill up every inch of the canvas with detail; those more confident in their craft are able to leave empty space.
Similarly, writers like Kafka and Hemingway were often acknowledged for what they had left unsaid. Hemingway so mastered the practice of omission that he might as well have invented it.
In Samedi the Deafness, it's clear that author Jesse Ball—first time novelist, long time poet—has taken his cues from the sparse and often nondescript. Every single minutiae of detail that does not propel the story has been excised. The novel is stark, but far from empty.
The novel's main character, James Sim, and its enigmatic villain, Samedi, may call to mind Her Majesty's favorite MI-6 agent, but the book reads more like a novel that Miss Moneypenny would have cooked up while playing a game of Clue with Syd Barrett. One sunny morning, James, a professional mnemonist, comes across a dying man. As the man bleeds to death, having just been stabbed in the chest, he confesses to James, "I was one of them, but I left, and they didn't want me to leave. Have you seen the paper? Samedi? The conspirators? I was one of them...You must do it. You must expose them." Disturbed, James leaves and tries to forget the incident.
But then the "them" described by the dying man begin to commit suicide, one a day, in front of the White House. Each clutches a message from Samedi, declaring doom to come on the seventh day.
The dying man leaves James with a few clues that soon land him in an asylum for chronic, habitual liars. Soon after this, readers will realize that Ball has taken them down the rabbit hole. The novel becomes strange. Very strange. Truth is flung out the window; conflicting statements from characters, paradoxical conundrums, and outright madness plague the middle of the book, leaving the reader to wonder if even Ball knows what the hell is going on.
Samedi is written in a poetic prose, and presented in an ergodic fashion — pages are sometimes half-full or intentionally left blank, alternate between single and double spacing, and always forced the reader to traverse the text slowly. No superfluous visual descriptions, adjectives or adverbs are ever offered up. Everything means something. Most of it are lies. And yet, all of it is worth the read." - Joel Nihlean

"Imagine, for the moment, that you live in a suburb of Washington, D.C., that it is a quiet Sunday morning, and that you have just settled into your park bench with your newspaper. A cry sounds from somewhere near you in the park; upon rushing over, you discover a man, lying on the ground, near death from stab wounds. The dying man tells you he was part of a terrorist conspiracy: “I was one of them,” gasps the man, “but I left, and they didn’t want me to leave. Have you seen the paper? Samedi? The conspirators? I was one of them. I didn’t have the stomach for it, and I left.” Now they have put him to death. He gives you some more names—Samedi, Estrainger, Grieve, Torquin—before his body becomes “more a part of the ground than of the world itself.”
You back away slowly.
The newspaper ominously reports that a man has slit his throat on the lawn outside the White House. The police have found a note on the body of the apparent suicide:
SEVEN DAYS AND THEN THE ROD. PATHS THAT HAVE BEEN TAKEN ARE WRONG AND MUST BE CORRECTED. THOSE WHO CAN SHOULD NOW DO WHAT THEY WILL TO CHANGE THE WORLD AND LEAVE THEIR NATION IF THEY DO NOT LIKE WHAT IT DOES.
SEVEN DAYS, THEN. SEVEN DAYS AND THEN THE ROD.
SAMEDI
Within 48 hours, you—the only witness to the man’s death—are stalked, sent threatening messages, involved in another suicide, and abducted to an enormous villa in the countryside. Not only that: two more men wind up dead on the South Lawn, each bearing another sinister note from Samedi.
Such is the initial trauma inflicted upon James Sim, the unwilling protagonist of Jesse Ball’s mercurially haunting novel, Samedi the Deafness. Ball’s work here is at once slippery and propulsive, vacillating amongst myriad generic modes as it tracks James’s progress (and more than occasional lack thereof) through the mystery of Samedi’s threats. The first set of events—from James’s discovery of the dying man to his abduction—comprises the first two chapters, or days, in the novel, while the remaining five days take place inside the villa, which is actually an elaborate construction called a verisylum (more on that in a moment). The underlying plot, which James sets out to untangle and within which he eventually becomes entangled, concerns Samedi’s vague threats of deafness to a nation ostensibly headed in the wrong direction and the conspiratorial machine Samedi has developed to realize his threats.
Samedi’s scheme, however, comprises only one strand of the novel’s multifaceted narrative, and its connections to the story as a whole—like James’s connections to Samedi’s plot—seem at first coincidental at best, frustratingly tangential at worst. James is brought to the verisylum apparently merely because he was the accidental witness to the first man’s death; the various layers of Samedi the Deafness, many of them concerning James’s childhood life, are ostensibly intertwined as a result of the initial accident. Naturally, nothing winds up having been accidental or unintended, though the success of the connections will lie more in the reader’s mind than in Ball’s efforts: the overall effect may well feel incoherent and confusing.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t enjoy the journey. Ball’s conceit of the verisylum is one of the more ingenious elements of the book, for, predictably, it forces both James and the reader to question every bit of information, every testament, every lived moment. At this, the reader will undoubtedly fare better than James—one may even find oneself grinding one’s teeth in frustration over James’s occasional inability to see through the various ruses Samedi and his conspirators present. From the start, we should all be suspicious:
This is a verisylum [explains one of the conspirators upon James’s arrival]…. We believe it is the only real treatment for dramatic cases of chronic lying, cases where the lying ends up compromising the identity of the individual…. [The patients in the house are] governed by a set of arbitrary rules. There would be no prohibition against lying, but the…chronic liars would find in the arbitrary rules…a sort of structure that allowed them, as time passed, to construct an identity for themselves. The idea is that when many lies are told, unfettered by immediate comparison to fact, they end up comprising a kind of truth.
An intriguing notion, but a befuddling one. Why should “arbitrary rules” help liars make an identity for themselves? As it is, this explanation only works itself out through the novel’s general themes; the individual patients James meets seem so bound up in following the arbitrary rules that they have little time to make their lies cohere into a true sense of selfhood.
And, more problematically, the speech I quoted above ends with one extra sentence: “The idea is that when many lies are told, unfettered by immediate comparison to fact, they end up comprising a kind of truth. On that truth too lies can be based.” Aha. Even if the verisylum’s rules are followed to the letter, even if identity can be forged from consistent lies, even if the treatment is a success, lies may well beget more lies.
The conclusion we might be tempted to draw from this speech—a laying-out, it would seem, of the novel’s central theme—is that lies perpetuate themselves, and that Ball is copping out by simply stating a facile truth about the human condition. This conclusion could well be true, but I would argue more is at stake in Samedi the Deafness than problems arising from the act of lying, and that the above description of the verisylum functions more as mood than as driving core.
In fact, if Samedi the Deafness is about anything, it is the interpretative crisis facing those who dwell in a modern world where information is presented from a multiplicity of spins and angles and where meaning and identity are at times more virtual than tangible. For James’s involvement in Samedi’s plot is in fact not accidental: he has been trained (by a large corporation of questionable integrity) to be a mnemonist. That is, he can remember, with picture-perfect clarity, large amounts of data. At the end of the day, Samedi intends to employ James as a sort of computer, by feeding to him sensitive information the hard copies of which must be destroyed (Ball may have been dismayed—or amused—to see this exact premise appear in the NBC comedy Chuck). But James, as we discover quite early on, is no mere automaton.
To begin with, while James may well have been chosen to “accidentally” witness the first man’s death (thus potentially enticing him into the larger plot), he himself decides to become involved, in a moment both foreboding and poignant (and possibly self-serving). Prior to his abduction but after he realizes the potential danger of Samedi’s threats, James sits at a café trying to decide what he ought to do before he comes to a conclusion:
A trembling then, slight, at the ankle and thumb. Someone could say to someone else in a far place, once acquainted with all the facts of the case, that it had been he, James Sim, who could have done something to prevent it. This afterwards, of course, after the tragedy, in an altered world.
Because James considers this only at the end of the first chapter, the remaining six are infused with the memory of this moment. Ball hints here at the menace of Samedi’s as-yet-unspecified plans—for fear is cultivated from the confrontation with the unknown—and the sense of foreboding hangs over the rest of the novel, shadowing even otherwise bright scenes of James’s childhood with a sense of lurking danger.
Yet the portentousness of Samedi’s plot is only one way—probably the most natural and obvious way—of looking at this strange, shape-shifting book. Samedi himself, for example, sees things in an entirely different light: he is the savior of America, if not of the world, for godlike he will wreak judgment upon the ignorant. Indeed, while it is never stated outright, it is clear that there exists a link between the curing of chronic lying and the kind of tragedy Samedi intends to deploy. Just as the vast and ever-shifting verisylum demonstrates that the relatively honorable intention of rehabilitating liars is only ever an exercise in futility, it will appear to any student of history that inflicting retribution upon an entire country will not go far to alleviating that country’s wrongs.
The theory behind Samedi’s plot is revealed thanks to James, who takes it upon himself to memorize a treatise written in code by the shadowy mogul on the ceiling of the verisylum’s library and then later to decipher it:
What must be done [Samedi’s treatise argues] is that an artificial catastrophe must be made to take place along with a specifically stated explanation. The method of this explanation must be biblical. Men are used to taking such instructions. Biblical too must be the disaster. The nation that must be humbled is the nation in which the most had once been possible, in which the greatest chance had been squandered. To Deafness, we must send a plague of Deafness, that the world learn the need to hear.
In another kind of conspiracy, this explanation would be treated as an “Aha!” moment, possibly even a revelation, for here might be the rationale behind the nefarious scheme. In Samedi the Deafness, however, the reader must—for the reader has been encouraged to all along—take the passage as either:
A. The truth, albeit with no easily-mappable referents
B. A lie, albeit with no easily-mappable referents
C. A truth built from a system of lies
D. All of the above
The safest bet would of course be option D. We are provided no sense of the state of the world which we could use either to sympathize with or to deplore Samedi’s stated intentions—that sense must come from within the reader, from the reader’s own sense of the problems of the world which ought or ought not to be rectified. And, again, the further layer of lies being built from a-truth-comprised-of-lies is important here, for while Samedi writes of “an artificial catastrophe” his intentions prove to have very real effects.
That we must wait, along with James, until the penultimate pages of the novel to discover exactly what these effects are is more than a little irritating. For by now, it should be clear that the “plague of Deafness” of which Samedi admonishes will be a very literal deafness (it will be caused by a type of cloud that emits a particular frequency that causes all to hear it to permanently lose hearing). The nation which sees things only in black and white, which is deaf to nuances or contradictions, will itself become fully deaf in order that the world might see how much care must be taken with the interpretation of facts.
And yet Samedi himself is guilty of this deafness. The new virtual truth he proposes, the deafness of the deaf, feels itself artificial. Who appointed him the arbiter of truth—particularly when, as the book’s various obsessions with doubles and mirroring work themselves out, he himself is shown to be perhaps the greatest of liars? Why should anyone, James included, believe in Samedi’s assessment of the state of the nation? What precisely is the state of the nation?
It’s a good deal for any reader to stomach, and I ought to emphasize at this point that thinking about Samedi the Deafness and reading it are two quite different activities. Again, these threats and conflicts are only a portion of the novel; the pleasure of the process of reading rests predominately with the other strands of the story, and particularly the weirdness of the thing. The verisylum’s geography, for example, shifts and heaves so that the reader, along with James, gets a strong sense both of the insurmountable size of the place and of the constant changes occurring in it. Ball sketches people and objects so sparsely that they are only just comprehensible, and he manages this in such a way as to intrigue, rather than to annoy, the reader.
What might prompt a reader (this one, at least) to try to unearth larger, more complex schemes, and to sift through the various scenes for subtle clues, is just the sense of incompletion that attends the end of Samedi the Deafness. Ball cultivates in his readers the desire to forge real meaning for Samedi and for James. One desires, at last, simple dramatic closure—but of simple dramatic closure there is none. Instead we are left with a kind of quantum state of possible endings, which may be irritating, may be fascinating, may be dumbfounding (or all three) depending on the reader.
Wending their way through Samedi’s schemes and the related plot of his daughter’s love for James are James’s own childhood recollections. In one flashback, James recalls the beginning of his training to become a mnemonist: “Will I begin to remember older things more clearly,” he wonders then, “or just things from now on?” The fact that James can potentially remember most things he encounters plays up the centrality of interpretation to Ball’s plot: facts alone are not enough to comprise truth, for facts must exist in context and must take on their meaning via their deployment. Part of the reason the verisylum seems to fail is its insistence upon arbitrary rules: one may go through the motions, but to be truly cured one must be able to comprehend the ultimate purpose behind the motions. Without explanation or context to aid the interpretive gesture, no one at the verisylum can quite manage this—so we can only imagine what will be the relative success of Samedi’s attempt.
But for James things are different. From the beginning his interpretation of present events is colored by his past life; the answer to his mnemonic question, then, is undoubtedly “both.” The plot inside the verisylum alternates with scenes from James’s early life, some almost annoyingly gratuitous, some moving, some humorous. Indeed, were these scenes not so riddled through with weirdness, they would be far more irritating than they are, for they tend to get in the way of the conspirators’ plot, which moves faster and is more chilling than the childhood stories.
Yet these scenes of a much younger James are linked to those of Samedi’s conspiracy because they establish a mood rather than drive home a specific point. These scenes, though they otherwise bear no obvious resemblance to the “current” events of the novel, nevertheless build a gradual sense of James as a person. Here was a child with a disturbing capacity for imagination, who had suffered loss, who (like the reader) desires to seek out the connections amongst objects, events, and people, however intangible those connections may be. James’s recollections provide a curious bit of calm in the chaotic whorl of the later plot strands. Such scenes are, I’d argue, what could draw readers more fully into the world of the book by helping them identify with James. Children make up their own games, have imaginary friends, deal with sadness differently than adults. These are truths more concrete and graspable than Samedi’s vague threats—indeed, more concrete and graspable than the fluid structure of the rest of the book.
Of course, these conclusions come from long hours of refelction. Samedi the Deafness will haunt and puzzle more than thrill or satisfy. One of the most memorable portions of it, for example, involves young James’s friend, an invisible owl named Ansilon. What exactly Ansilon has to do with Samedi’s conspiracy is best left up to the reader’s imagination. But the Ansilon story deals with childhood and the difficult transition to the adolescent world. Ansilon teaches James to see connections amongst seemingly-unrelated events, to believe in punishment for those who have been bad, and to value the inherent potential of things. It is Ansilon who provides James with the ability to judge his own role in the Samedi plots, who signals to him the importance of listening and interpreting facts—yet is also Ansilon who rends him most greatly, who signals the gap between the oblivion of childhood and the obligation of adulthood. Or, better stated, the openness of childhood and the deafness of adulthood.
And James knew then that all children must at some time mistake themselves and choose to leave childhood. Yet once it is done, it cannot be undone, for it is a very small door that shuts in a long, long wall.
—Good-bye, said James.
—Good-bye, said Ansilon.
And then it was pouring rain, and James was standing in the street with his grandparents, wearing a rain slicker, many years later, and he felt clearly that he had lost all that was best.
But who has the means to preserve such as that? he thought. And the world continued.
It is in the brief but myriad shining moments such as these that Ball reveals what is most haunting, most profound about his work. He is more poet than novelist, and he has a particular eye for the way words fall on a page, for their cadences and discords but also for the blank space between then. That blank space is where we as readers must be most engaged, must invest the most of ourselves—where we are obligated to interpret, to decide, and to judge." - Lianne Habinek
Jesse Ball & Thordis Bjornsdottir, Vera & Linus (Nyhil, 2006)

"Vera & Linus is a series of short sketches. The book's theme is the love between the two protagonists, Vera and Linus. They are mischief makers and tricksters of the most daring sort, and they are constantly up to no good, but the language holds them with a clear restraint, a restraint born perhaps out of the peculiar nature of their love, a love both for each other and the things of the world. Their mastery, and shifting natures allow them to compel the workaday world as they see it, but not to rule over each other, and so their game begins, as Vera struggles to outwit Linus, and Linus to outwit Vera."

"In this unusual collection of what are arguably prose poems, sketches or pieces of flash fiction, husband and wife Ball (March Book, 2004) and Bjrnsdottir introduce a charming yet gruesome pair of protagonists: Vera and Linus. They are childlike, living in a world where giving presents and playing are top priority, but they are also devoted lovers and perhaps siblings. Their twisted fairy tale world is as magical as it is disturbing: in it, a treasure chest opens up to reveal an entire lake inside, and children and animals are tortured for the protagonists' amusement. Episodes of violence ('Vera and Linus broke the dog's neck and put the body into a brown canvas bag which they tied neatly with great satisfaction') are often sewn seamlessly into scenes of fanciful beauty: '...their sorrows were carried away... to the court of the sea-king, and dined on there to much acclaim....' The light touch and often archaic feel of the prose owes as much to Kafka as to classic fairy tales. Certainly many readers will find this book unsettling, but most will also find it hard not to remember a time when the world was filled with this kind of fearful mystery and wonder, though hopefully not this kind of violence." - Publishers Weekly
Jessse Ball, March Book (Grove Press, 2004)

"March Book is a wonder and a revelation. A shockingly assured first collection from young poet Jesse Ball, its elegant lines and penetrating voice present a poetic symphony. Craftsmanship defines this collection; it is full of tenderly selected words and inventive pairings. Just as impressive are the breadth and ingenuity of its recurring themes, which crescendo as Ball leads us through his fantastic world, quietly opening doors. In five separate sections we meet beekeepers and parsons, a young woman named Anna in a thin linen dress, and an old scribe transferring the eponymous March Book. We witness a Willy Lomanesque worker who "ran out in the noon street / shirt sleeves rolled, and hurried after/that which might have passed" only to be told that there's nothing between him and "the suddenness of age." While these images achingly inform us of our delicate place in the physical world, others remind us why we still yearn to awake in it every day and "make pillows with the down / of stolen geese," "build / rooms in terms of the hours of the day." Like a patient Virgil, insistent and confident, Ball escorts us through his mind, and we're lucky to follow."
Jesse Ball, Parables & Lies (The Cupboard, 2007)

"Being able to fit a book in your back pocket is a dream for urban dwellers. The problem is that that book is probably either a cheesy guidebook or a moleskin. The Cupboard is taking the pocket-size book market very seriously, by inviting an author to write a collection of very short stories that fit in very thin books. We were ecstatic to see they invited Jesse Ball to complete their first edition. We first discovered Jesse Ball in the Paris Review years ago, after which he received much deserved acclaim for his books March Book and Vera & Linus. The stories are one or two pages, which is perfect when you have five minutes to kill. And the literature is good enough for multiple reads." - Josh Spear


"Jesse Ball’s second novel, The Way Through Doors, comes out February 10, 2009 from Vintage Contemporaries. A series of stories incased one inside the other in the mind of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler… Ball’s second novel is an absolutely mind-busting collage of compulsive images, riddles, and dream brain.
At the tail end of ‘08, after having read his latest and been firmly socked in the gut by it in, the most pleasurable of ways, I e-mailed with Jesse about the circumstances of the creation of the book, the function of alinear and or disjunctive storytelling, as well as his notoriously fast writing methods and practices.
I hadn't realized when I was reading your new The Way Through Doors that it was actually written before Samedi the Deafness, though Samedi came out first. You mentioned that your agent had had trouble placing The Way Through Doors first and then when Samedi got accepted your editor at Vintage asked to see the other and eventually took it on also. I was kind of surprised when you mentioned this, but then it began to make sense, as Doors seems a much freer and insanely structured book even than the puzzle box that is Samedi. I am interested in the difference in processes of your writing these two novels, and perhaps the time between them, or the way your intentions changed, if at all?
- I wrote The Way Through Doors in June/July of 2005 when I was in the south of France. I wrote Samedi the Deafness in September/October of 2005 in Scotland. The writing of The Way Through Doors took 2-3 weeks. I had, however, thought through what some of the various storylines would be. So, the 2-3 weeks consisted of putting it down on paper. The important thing for me about the structure of a book is that it should permit me the room to surprise myself as I write. Certainly, the structure of TWTD allows that. As for intentions, I don't know that I had particular intentions that would differentiate my purpose in Samedi from that in TWTD. I try to realize in a space of text the specific ambiguities that I feel -- not randomly chosen ones, but specific ones. This, I think, is the greatest clarity we can hope for.
It says in your press sheet for the new book that you will sit in silence for several weeks before you begin a new book. I have also read in other places about the short span Samedi was written in while you were holed up overseas, utilizing long stretches of writing in which you would hang the manuscript around the room, immersing yourself in the text. Would you talk a little about the process of immersion during creation, as it applies to you, and the benefits of writing a book in a short period versus books that are toiled over for years and years?
- I have periods when I do not write, and periods when I write. During the non-writing, or gathering periods, I do write in a journal. Those are observations, drawings, evidence of fascination, peculiar details that have come to light, etc. The journals are not tools towards verse-writing or novel-writing. They are useful in and of themselves and are their own end. When I enter a period of writing, I have a project before me, and I set everything else aside. I view it as a performance, the way a pianist would, and the discipline is a similar one. I believe that rigorous readings, observation, sharp thought -- these are preparations for the creation of a work. If one is sloppy there, then the work will not be what one desires. In my works, I try to conjure up a state of affairs -- a glimpse of one situated thought, where the situation is all that surrounds it in the mind. I don't believe one could write such a book over a long period of time, as the associations of the writer to his/her words shift, and wouldn't be consistent. The writer would refer to particular concepts, thoughts, objects, at the beginning of the book, but by the book's end, he/she wouldn't mean the same thing when he/she spoke of them. I try to avoid this trap. As for the benefit of hanging a manuscript about the room, for me it is not a matter of examining the manuscript there on the wall, so much as it is a matter of being confronted with the physical evidence of my process. It gives me a sense of the undertaking and sends me forward.
I don't want to talk too specifically about the structure of The Way Through Doors, as the magic of it for me was in the unfolding of the story, but essentially it consists partially of a series of stories embedded in one another that in various ways enmesh, sort of like Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler.... At one point early on in the text, a character receives a note that contains, in part, the message: "Is there such a thing as useless obfuscation? I don't think so." This meant a lot to me, as it seems there is a big emphasis especially in larger market fiction and in other methods of entertainment to have obfuscation be explained or serve a "higher" purpose than existing for itself. You often hear the question, "What is human here?" Though I have always thought that being human is such a sprawling and bizarre task, and that most things in human life are not explained, are not "leading up" except in the way they eventually compile. We're not even talking about language poetry or symbolic writing here really, such as "aslidfalsdhfowe oaihdofi" or "organ splat the vermin oven." They are palpable, if fantastical, string of semi-resolving occurrence. How then, as you are constructing, say, a book where the tallest building in the world is mostly underground, as there is in The Way Through Doors, do you parse in your own mind the melding of the fantastical with "what is human"? More so, how does the "obfuscation" lead to the way you go about piecing the narrative together in your mind and on the page? (This is a really long question, I apologize, it is something I feel strongly about.)
- Perhaps this question is best answered simply by the fact of the book being the way it is, than by anything I could say. However - in direct response, I am always puzzled by the certainty that people seem to have about the march of progress. People are sure that they are smarter today, have better things, spend their hours in more meaningful pursuits, etc, than those people who labored in distant centuries. Similarly, there is a certainty that it is better to be intelligent, strong, attractive, etc. The problem with these certainties is that they aren't certain at all! I don't believe writing is better now than it was 2,000 years ago. Neither do I believe people are happier, or live fuller lives. Probably, being lucky is the best thing - but even that is in doubt, as luck itself is simply the pendulum swaying to one or the other extreme. Is it better to be shallowly happy a lot of the time, or deeply sad with occasional firestorms of delight and joy? The point of all this is that: if we aren't even certain about what to aim for, then what is the use in one form of order over another? Instead of trying to come to some conclusion about what the objectives of progress are, society drives headlong towards objectives with unknown application. Consider this: nobody has even been able to dream up a utopia that sounds very good at all to anyone.
Therefore, how can we say one thing is more significant than another? The day that you're just now finishing: which part of it was "the point"? Of course, we do have our time in which we are born and die, and we play games during that time, which seem to involve suffering and some reward. Being conscious of a panoply of objects as they flutter past -- where some things are concealed and others are clear, maybe that's it. Could it be that emotion is the whole thing - the whole point? A small play of emotions in the skull?
- As for useless obfuscation, it is certainly easy to write about a circumstance and people it with incongruous elements, and then neatly stitch them up to make them understandable, and therefore, able to be dismissed. It's more difficult to leave their incongruity to linger, and to make it so that it reflects the actual incongruities of thought and experience. These simply can't be explained. People try to, and sometimes seem to, but they're just using tricks. So, obfuscation is merely three dimensionality as it exists -- or four dimensionality, if you like. Things are always in front of other things, sometimes purposefully, sometimes not. There's a scene in some film where a guy enters a mock up of a store and has to immediately shut his eyes and name everything that he can see. I love that. Why should I in my writing make one thing have more meaning than another if that meaning isn't present? I don't know if this answers your question.
You teach classes on lying and dreaming at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I know several of your students have been appearing a lot online and in print recently, including Jac Jemc, C. Robin Madigan, Heather Palmer, and others, all of whom I can see at least some of your influence in. Could you give a small reading list of texts you have taught in your classes, or maybe a brief discussion of a method or exercise in either lying or dreaming you use in class?
- I use a lot of LaBerge in my dreaming class. His techniques are simple and perfectly effective. If you follow them thoroughly, you will learn to lucid dream. His book, Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, is sufficient for all your lucid-dreaming needs. My favorite, however, is a nineteenth century book: Dreams and How to Guide Them, by Hervey De Saint-Denys, which LaBerge led me to. I don't know if that one is in print. The lying class had a book of readings that I compiled. It's quite thick. If you like, I can probably manage to get it to you somehow. The meat of the lying class was a series of exercises that I would devise in order to magnify and focus the practical powers of deception of the class members. These operations were not always appreciated by the families/spouses/loved-ones of the class-members. One such involved the imposition of a false memory. The idea is this: you select an individual with whom you have a long acquaintance. On a particular day, you sit with this person and speak for a while. When you have acquired a looseness to your verbal manner, you begin to recall, in camaraderie, a story from the distant past that involves both you and the person in question (X). You choose the story with great care. It should substantiate some belief that X has about himself, something he wants to be true but that perhaps isn't quite true. For instance, if X fancies himself to have been crazy during his high school years, and likes to recall that about himself, you can easily tell X a story about those high school years involving X's craziness (always a complimentary story), and get X to agree that it happened. The whole thing must be done casually. What you are trying to get out of X is not just his agreement that the fictional events occurred (that's quite easy). Rather, you want X to add to the story once you've begun it, and laugh gladly in memory of old times, etc. Then, X will be telling you the end of a false story you created, and he will actually be thinking that it's true! You'd be surprised how well this works, and how easily. Part of the mechanism for this is the attempt that any community makes to come to a consensus about past events, and the compromise that is inevitable in such a consensus. This mechanism of consensus and compromise, with vanity added to it, gives you the ability to impose false memories on trusting individuals.
Obviously you've gotten references to David Lynch quite a bit (Tom McCarthy's Lynch reference in the blurb on the back of Samedi was what originally got me to buy the book, without knowing anything else.) You also get Hitchcock rather widely, and you are also a photographer. How much are you influenced by these or other filmmakers? How does the concept of framing or filmic motion affect the way you will write a scene?
- Film is probably the most consistent vocabulary that exists at the moment, if we are speaking of character and plot. Too few have read the same books to be able to use the situations from those books in order to prove arguments that they might like to make to one another in the course of conversation. Instead, they use situations and characters from films and television. So, whether I do that or not, it is important for me to be conscious of the understandings I provoke. I love David Lynch's work. However, there is a certain randomness to it, an intention-less-ness that bothers me. My favorite filmmakers, like Tarkovsky, can do the sudden amplification of shivering weirdness while also creating something profound. Andrei Rublev, or Stalker: these are films that use the chaos of objects, feelings and characters to create something unexplainable. However, with these two films the thing that is unexplainable is a particular thing. With Lynch I sometimes feel it is a randomly arrived at thing. That said, I am always eager to watch and rewatch Lynch's work, and I adore Mulholland Drive to no end. Watching films is one of the great luxuries of our times -- and it is a luxury that I would not be without. I have even been known to rent three movies and watch them in a row. Some films that I admire: Les Enfantes Du Paradis; Le Cercle Rouge; The Thirty-Nine Steps; High Noon; Paris, Texas; Rebellion: Receive the Wife; The Shooting Party; The Duellists; Day of Wrath. I also love the work that's being done in film right now. Recent ones: Russian Ark; In the Bedroom; Goodbye, Dragon Inn; Curse of the Golden Flower.
I have also read that you have a whole trove of books you've written over the years that are as yet unpublished, each kind of waiting their turn. How much would you say you write when you are in the mode of writing? How much time each year, on average? Obviously, these are relative numbers, but I am interested in the process of output and perhaps how many projects you immerse yourself in at a time, how they bleed a bit into one another, etc?
- There are a number of volumes awaiting their turn. As the years have passed, I have become better at compressing the writing process into smaller and smaller portions of time. Plainface, a novel that will eventually come out, is composed of novellas that tell the continuing adventures of a boy named Plainface, and each of those novellas was written rapidly, some even in a single day. It all goes back to what I was saying about a pianistic performance. One attempts to maintain a thread through an atmosphere that one constructs around the thread even as one weaves the thread through it. The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr, I wrote in one sitting. The same is true of Pieter Emily, another novella. I wrote a book of poems in December of 2007 called The Skin Feat. That's a part of an omnibus called The Village on Horseback which Milkweed will publish in 2011. That book of poems was written over the course of a couple weeks. In terms of all these works, quantity, though, is not my aim. I simply want to realize the thought as well as I can, and be surprised in the process. To be engaged in a life of making -- that's the pursuit." - Interview with Blake Butler

"Jesse Ball is kind of a tricky guy. Talking to him, you feel like he’s up to something, solving a puzzle you didn’t even know was there. His work is fueled equally by Kafka, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and things that are wholly his own invention. When he’s not practicing martial arts—he does something akin to boxing—or hanging out with his family, or writing, he’s reading.
Grove Press published Ball’s first book, a collection of poems called March Book, in 2004 while Ball was still finishing his MFA at Columbia University. In terms of subject matter and technique, the poems aren’t too different from the novels Ball would write a few years later—a mixture of surreal and realistic imagery and characters, exaggeration and humor used to drive home deeply earnest emotions, a sense of timelessness derived from folktales, Kafka, and other sources. March Book sold well (for a book of poems) but perhaps because he was young, and perhaps because “promotion” for books of poetry is more like spreading rumors than selling anything, and because those rumors tend to spread through the tightly-knit community of poets of which, at the time, Ball was not a part, his debut didn’t do much for his writerly reputation.
But Ball is also the kind of writer who writes all the time. His muse never seems to go on vacation, so within a couple of years—spent largely in Europe—Ball had written his first novel, The Way Through Doors, though it was his second to be published. Next he wrote Samedi the Deafness, published by Vintage in 2007. It’s the account of seven days in the life of James Sim, who finds himself enmeshed in a shadowy terrorist organization based in an asylum for liars. As Sim explores the asylum, where he is held prisoner, he finds that while he is desperate for information, he’d be a fool to trust anything that any of the chronic liars—especially the alluring Grieve—tell him, and he also finds that maybe that’s okay.
Lying, or at least some form of making up the truth, is central to Ball’s sense of literature. His new book and second novel, The Way Through Doors, is the story of someone who compulsively makes up stories. Selah Morse is a municipal inspector, a city functionary whose badge gives him either complete or absolutely no power, depending on the situation. When he witnesses a beautiful girl get hit by a car on his rounds, he takes her to the hospital, claims, for convenience sake, to be her boyfriend, and takes her home when she is released with amnesia into his care. Her doctors say she must be kept awake for eighteen hours, and so to keep her awake and perhaps to help remind her of who she might be, Selah begins spinning a kind of endless tale—what’s called a “frame tale,” as Ball says below—in which one story gives way to another and another in a cascade of absolutely mesmerizing concentric narratives. It’s a deeply entertaining and moving book, a love story set in a wild imagination.
Since beginning to publish fiction, things have gone well for Ball. His novels were both reviewed enthusiastically, and in 2008, he won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for his story “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp and Carr.” He scored a job teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago and now lives nearby with his wife and sometime collaborator Thordis Bjornsdottir (the pair wrote a hilarious and haunting book of stories about a violent pair of kids, called Vera and Linus). Milkweed Editions is slated to publish his next book of poems, and he’s got a heap of fiction in the hopper. He and I met in graduate school, and have become friends; we got together to talk about his writing, reading, and the way some people talk about books.
Your writing is poised somewhere between very old—the timeless territory of fables and folktales—and the very new, hip, disjunctive, tricky fiction that is popular today. Some might even call it experimental at times, though I don’t think you’d call yourself an experimental writer.
- Well, I’ve always been very old fashioned, and I think when people respond to when people say something’s experimental, it’s usually before they’ve read it. Once they read it, they say, “oh, yeah, I’m comfortable with this, it’s a good story.” I don’t consider myself an experimental writer, though some of the things I do are kind of drastic in one way or another. I always try to be strategic and economical, and that’s expressed drastically. However, the actual heart of it is a fondness for delight, surprise, and story. The main thing for me is an older tradition of storytelling, not writing in a way that relies on a consensus of what’s real, but paying attention to the actual story itself, and to how we live, how we relate to one another. There are many techniques by which to tell a story that can’t be used in realistic novels, but which work perfectly well and have been used for thousands of years. One of those is the frame tale, which is a great way of creating expectation and tension within a story and allowing you to move between different resources and create something that can operate on different levels.
You’re both a fiction writer and a poet. It seems to me that a fiction writer has to have lots of, as you say, fondness, the real desire, to sit in the rooms they’re writing about and look around and say, “oh this is there, that’s there, that’s there,” whereas a poet really loves the words more than the things they refer to, the way that a comic book artist loves icons. If a comic artist wants to draw a bookshelf, rather than carefully rendering each detail of the bookshelf, he or she will just draw the rectangle for the bookshelf, outline one or two books, then make some wavy lines to show the rest. A poet is like that with words. Your fiction partakes of both strategies: fidelity to the real world and unrealistic icons. How do the practices of poetry and fiction go together for you?
- I think the main difference is in the expectations the reader comes into a piece of writing with. As the author, you’re working with a different understanding for each genre of how the readers can read things, how much attention they’re going to pay, what they believe they’re going to receive from the writing. I think poems are instructions or clues to methods of thought, and narratives—meaning fiction—give you more; it comes from a different angle. Poetry is a fixation on an object, and fictional narratives are a succession of objects being named and then placed next to one another. I love D.H. Lawrence. He’s really good at both. A lot of people make a choice of some kind between the two. There are things that are alluring about writing fiction that aren’t the case for poetry. You just get so much attention for it, and also the people who read fiction get excited and don’t plead a lack of understanding. One of the most frustrating things is when a perfectly intelligent person who you know can read a poem will just toss their hands in the air and say, “Oh yeah, I don’t really understand poetry.” With fiction that doesn’t happen.
No, people never say that about fiction. It must have been a kind of a strange feeling, having first published March Book, a collection of poetry, to suddenly be somewhat more recognized when you published your first novel, Samedi the Deafness. A few famous writers, like Jonathan Franzen, came to your book party, and even Gawker showed up. Gawker certainly doesn’t cover poets’ book parties.
- Yeah, it is pretty silly. I wrote that book of poems and then nothing happened at all. I was happy to have written it, and I wanted people to read it, but it didn’t help me to get a job or anything; nothing came of it. The novel, on the other hand, was this huge sort of fanfare. And it’s funny because the novels have the same sort of material, the same sort of ideas as the poems, and I almost could have chosen which one to do; poetry is what I was starting with. If I was calculating, I certainly would have done it the other way around. But starting out with poetry is one of the best ways to become a really good and dutiful reader. I even say to people and students that if I had my choice for them between reading and writing, between 100 percent of one and zero of the other, in order to become a good writer, I would say they should do zero writing and all reading. Rather than all writing and no reading, which is what some people do.
One of the things that always dismays me is the degree to which people dismiss certain older classics because they don’t realize that each reader of a book obtains something different from it. It’s not like everyone sees the same things in a particular book. If you’re Samuel Beckett, whatever you read is going to come off in a particular way. I mean, if Samuel Beckett has just read The Canterbury Tales, you’re really going to want to hear what he has to say.
So, who would be your ideal reader?
- There was an answer that somebody gives, some writer: their ideal reader was themselves at the age of fifteen in a provincial library finding the book on a dusty shelf. For me, I think I like it when people approach books as though they were about to set out on some picnic or adventure. I like people to read alone, all by themselves, and get caught up in it. I like for them to read it as rapidly as possible, possibly in one sitting, but I understand if that’s not the case, but quickly. It used to be that the novella was wonderful because it would be read in one sitting, but now I don’t know that many people who read that many pages at once.
Also, novellas have recently gotten the same bad rap as poetry, where people hear about one and say, “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t really understand novellas,” like they’re hearing the word novella and they think they’re hearing “sestina” and they just don’t know. But you say you want people to be able to read your books as rapidly as possible?
- I meant that just in terms of finishing it in one go. If it took twelve hours, that would be fine. I mean, as long as they have their lunch.
Something I find especially interesting about The Way Through Doors is it doesn’t have any breaks or chapters in it—it’s just a parade of one thing after the next thing and the next thing. The process of reading The Way Through Doors is very much a continuous one. I’m wondering if the process of writing it was similar. Were you strategizing and plotting all of those little stories, or did they arise spontaneously out of one another?
- I had come up with some of them beforehand—the one about the Russians, an earlier version of which was told to me by a woman maybe in the nineteen nineties. So I had that and I had something vague in my head about the ugliest woman in Russia and the empress. The thing about this kind of book is that it actually can be easy to write because with so many stories and kinds of stories, there are so many resources that exist for writers as they’re writing; it’s sort of like driving a car with a hundred gears and fifteen wheels pointing in every direction—overwhelming but enabling too. Like a mongoose—one of the great things about a mongoose is that it can run the same speed when making a full right turn; it doesn’t slow down. That’s kind of how I felt, having so many resources. A lot of times you get tired when you’re writing something because you’re not sure what you want to do but you know the thing you have to do. You’re not prepared to do that, so for a while you skip ahead and then come back. But with this, it was just easy to flow around every obstacle, and yet nonetheless eventually address all obstacles.
Can you tell me about Lincoln’s Folly, the meadow and house deep beneath New York, which one gets to by walking down an immense staircase in the tallest building in the world, most of which is deceptively underground. It seems to me that’s the deepest place in the story, literally and figuratively.
- You know, that’s the part of the book that surprised me. Literally from sentence to sentence I didn’t know what was about to be written—it just poured off, you know. Part of that section came out of something I read about Lincoln’s dreams. Apparently Lincoln would have these magnificent, foreboding, powerful, charismatic dreams during the Civil War that he used to get his wherewithal, and so I had this concept of Lincoln as some kind of shaman. He was a wrestler, he was pretty badass guy. But he was also a good dreamer.
I have always loved the kind of compassion your writing displays for the strangest things about people, a real compassion for the importance of fantasy as a part of everyday life. There’s a way that this book makes a kind of hiding place for children that works, a place to house, if you’ll permit the cliché, one’s inner child, like the little lookout spot in Samedi the Deafness and Lincoln’s Folly. There is a deep kind of compassion that leads you to invent these sorts of places. And I think it goes back to what you said earlier about having the habit of reading: that there are always more places to go to, and always more maps to superimpose upon the actual world. I think Toni Morrison said that she wanted to write the books that she wanted to read, and I feel that impulse pretty strongly, in your work too. I think you’re trying to make the kind of book the kind of person you are would feel good in.
- I think that’s really right on. I do think that there is a hope to superimpose on the actual weakness of the world, without diminishing the actual weakness, to nonetheless map it and find all the comfortable spots, the narrow spaces and the mysteries." - Interview with Craig Morgan Teicher


Read also:

Jesse Ball: "The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr"

Jesse Ball: "Pieter Emily"

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