Earlier this year, Jesse Ball published a novel titled Census, commanding prominent bookstore placements and proportionate acclaim: Ball’s “best to date” according to the NY Times, an “unusual, impressive novel” says The Guardian, by a “singular author” say the LA Times, and from the Washington Post we get “strange and exploratory,” which really is both apt and fittingly high praise. I loved this book for how odd it was, for how beautiful it was, and for much beauty it found in all that can be written off as odd.
My friend—the exceptionally talented, prolific, and lauded documentary filmmaker Penny Lane—sent me a copy of Ball’s novel unprompted(!), because, well…census!…
Note: Spoilers follow, kinda, although really it isn’t the sort of story that can be spoiled.
Ball’s opening lines explain the book’s (“hollow”) heart: a character modeled on Ball’s deceased older brother, Abram, born with Down syndrome, who Ball played with as a child and always understood he would help care for as an adult. Ball recasts his brother in the role of an unnamed son to the dying protagonist, a widowed surgeon who becomes a census taker upon learning his prognosis. We encounter the son through the many and various reactions of others to him, and yet, miraculously, come to know him and to understand to a degree his experience of the world.
So, why the census? Ball appears drawn to the dramatic and narrative possibilities of the count (although that’s not the right word for Ball’s version, as I’ll explain in my next post). In writing about a census taker Ball can play with and pervert the conventions of epics, quest stories, and road novels. To be a census taker, the father tells us, is to join “a sort of crusade into the unknown.”
“Someone once said about it, into a tempest with a lantern. Into a tempest with a lantern—these are words I have said under my breath many times, though for me the feeling is not heroic but comedic. There is a helplessness to the census taker. The limits of what can be done are very clear…My wife, now dead, would laugh to see me in an old coat approaching houses. But, I feel it still, the warmth of the little lantern, the storm of the tempest.”
It was in the national archives, looking for something else, that I chanced upon Census Bureau records and first noticed the drama inherent to the project of finding every citizen, of discovering the peculiarities of each, of making a lasting record, against daunting odds: so much space to cover, so many people to corral, and always in the face of possible resentment or resistance, or, even, over-enthusiasm (um, that’s enough detail, sir, thanks…)
The father’s census travels—from a mythic city of A toward the outskirts of Z—allow Ball also to unspool surprising, odd, or troubling yarns: of a woman who delights in hearing herself described by men robbing her house; of grumpy old men whose families have left them; of a man who (I think) framed his twin brother for murder; of famous sisters who play at seducing and punishing the census taker, eventually admitting they’re renowned humorists (who know well the celebrated mime-work of the surgeon’s dead wife); of a doctor in a rope factory who had no thumbs, each having been chopped off by his father to prevent the boy from working and dying on the factory floor. Or as James Lasdun put it for the Guardian: “There’s a sinister detective, a thumbless doctor at a fantastical rope factory, a hipster puzzle maker, an alarming nymphomaniac and her even more alarming sister.” The effect is something like a darker, demon-haunted edition of StoryCorps, each episode committed to revealing some small corner of our shared human potential for good and ill.
P.S. I don’t know the origins of “into a tempest with a lantern.” It reminds me, though,—because, well, lantern!—of the tin bulls-eye lanterns that William James summons, quoting an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson, to explain how the apparently inconsequential can to another person be the source of life’s joy and worth. It’s the sort of sentiment that one imagines Ball would nod along with.