When High Praise Isn't Enough: The Curfew by Jesse Ball

on Thursday, June 30, 2011
Forget all the names you've seen in The New Yorker's Twenty Under Forty list. They were mere flights of hipster sycophancy. Tea who? Gary what? The most exciting, original and flat out incredible young writer at work today is Jesse Ball. Three novels and two collections of poetry (plus a volume of collected prose and poetry) into his career and he has yet to set a foot wrong. Admittedly, I'm not all that au fait with the poetic form, but by all accounts his poems are better than his novels and, if that is true, well step aside T. S. Elliot or Ezra Pound. I can speak only of his prose, but both the absurdist noir Samedi The Deafness, and the existential adventure The Way Through Doors rank among my favourite books of the modern era. It really comes down to one thing. Ball is the most unique voice to appear in ages. He has the unhinged imagination of the great surrealists (Alfred Jarry in particular springs to mind), the compelling narrative gusto of the master storytellers and a lyrical beauty that is just unfair in someone so young.

His latest novel, The Curfew, has just been released to minor fanfare but if there is any justice in this world it ought to propel him to literary stardom. Once again, Ball has created a familiar yet unsettling world and filled it with interesting, challenging characters. This one was always going to speak to me. William writes epitaphs, using a new pencil for each entry in his notebook. He used to be a violinist. But that was before the government banned music. And started causing its more pesky citizens to 'disappear'. William's wife Lousia vanishes one day, leaving him to care for their young, mute daughter Molly. It is a task he goes about in wistful earnest; the interactions between the two are heartbreaking yet still somehow affirming. The first part of the novel deals with William juggling his job with the realities of raising a daughter while coming to terms with his own grief. All is going swimmingly until he bumps into an old acquaintance who intimates that he knows what happened to Louisa. It is a moment of Dashiell Hammett gumshoe homage - "Meet me at place X at time Y" - a sly, humorous nod to his previous work that propels the story in an urgent, new direction. William leaves Molly in the care of his elderly neighbours, and breaks the citywide curfew in the hope of finally finding out what became of his wife. Although the book is perfectly charming up to this point, it isn't until Part Two, when Molly enters the neighbour's apartment, that Ball really comes into his own. Mr. Gibbons is a puppeteer of old, with a fully-functioning puppet theatre set up in his lounge room. While his wife potters about the place, Mr. Gibbons draws Molly into the reconstruction of each of his puppets, having her dictate in pencil (he doesn't understand sign language) who each of them might represent in her life. Part Three is brief and painful, recounting William's search for Lousia, and the shocking events of that night. Part Four is pure Ball - experimental yet mesmerising - a puppet show in prose form, acting out the story of William and Louisa's courtship, marriage and awful fate. It is a slice of meta-fiction that very quickly devolves into Kafkaesque horror. I don't want to spoil anything here but suffice it to say, Ball follows each suckerpunch with a kick to the nuts. He is uninterested in making the reader feel good or even comfortable. And that, dear bookworm, is a very good thing.

The Curfew is an important book, short (200-odd pages) but with considerable moral weight. It is both a beautiful meditation on parenthood, and a damning indictment on the ease with which a functioning state might slump into totalitarianism. With the help of a few decrepit marionettes, Ball has fashioned a thoroughly believable modern nightmare, dripping with beauty and specked with moments of true magic that only serve to increase its terrible effect. Indeed, it is the author who is the ultimate puppeteer and he jerks us around with ease. Like the two novels that came before it, The Curfew is an exercise in imaginative experimentation. And once again it works a treat, making Jesse Ball the only author not to ever have disappointed me. Like the great chroniclers that have come before him, Ball should be required reading for anyone and everyone trying to make sense of our times. He is playful, puzzling and packs serious intellectual heat. High praise? I dare say I still fail to do him justice.


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