O BROTHER, HERE THOU ART: Census by Jesse Ball

on Friday, March 2, 2018
When it comes to fiction, grief makes a lousy muse. Far from inspiring imaginative responses, it tends to trap the writer in a narrow realist frame, often to the point of sentimentality. Sure, schmaltz sells books, and it can be genuinely moving, but it very rarely demonstrates anything beyond the writer’s fear of losing perfect sight of the person they are mourning on the page. Indeed, I can think of only one novelist who has pulled it off successfully in the last decade. Miriam Toews wrote her sucker-punch to the heart, All My Puny Sorrows, in the wake of her sister’s suicide. But even that remained firmly rooted in the 'real'. Most other novelists think better than to take the risk and, instead, sidestep into memoir: Julian Barnes, Joan Didion, and Philip Roth all wrote powerful books as part of their creative shiva. Now Jesse Ball has entered the fray with his latest novel, Census, and, I dare say, completely changed the game.

In a brief introduction, Ball tells us of his older brother, Abram, who had Down syndrome and died twenty years ago at the age of twenty four. “What is in my heart,” Ball writes, “is something so tremendous, so full of light, that I thought I must write a book that helps people to see what it is like to know and love a Down syndrome boy or girl.” For a while he struggled with how he would go about it. Then: “I realised I would make a book that was hollow. I would place him in the middle of it, and write around him for the most part. He would be there in his effect.” Yes, Jesse Ball would honour the memory of his brother by doing what he does best: being Jesse Ball, contemporary literature’s lovechild of Calvino, Borges and Ballard.

Census opens at the end of the story, with an old man digging a grave. He once was a doctor but is now a census taker. For what we aren’t told. We know only that the census is older than the nation. The old man has a son, we learn, and once had a wife. The boy is gone, the wife is dead. His journey began a while back with a notification: he, too, would soon be dead. His heart was literally breaking. It was this that caused him to become a census taker, so that he could take his son along, spend time, prepare him for what was to come. And so they set off into the northern lands, each district identified by only a latter (in alphabetical order), each town with its own history and distinct population. In this regard, I was reminded of Thomas Bernhard’s Gargoyles, in which a doctor also takes his son on a journey through a strange land. As in Bernhard’s book, they meet a number of people and listen to their stories, giving the reader fly on the wall access to the unsettling familiarity of a world just outside our experience.

Where the books differ wildly, of course, is with the sons. Bernhard’s boy is a budding scientist, who the father seeks to ply with data about how horrible the world can be. The son in Census, while never explicitly described as such, has Down syndrome. Here is the brother around whom the book is written. As an avatar to engage with an ever-changing environment, he is perfect. His condition provides an experiential innocence that removes the layer of cynicism polluting the way we tend to view the world. There is a certain delight to be had simply in his presence, particularly when viewed from a loving father’s perspective. Unfortunately, the same cannot always be said of those they encounter, and Ball brilliantly gives us the range of reactions, from the heartwarmingly tender to the infuriatingly cruel. Some gave me pause to think about moments in my own life, one of which stands out thirty-five-odd years after it happened. On a family holiday to America, we went to Knott’s Berry Farm. Dad took me on the spinning saucers (I was too scared to try the rollercoaster with my brother). As the ride came to an end, a kid with Down syndrome ran to our saucer and jumped in, whooping and laughing with unbridled joy. I burst out crying. The kid’s father ran over and apologised, saying his son just loved to play. For some reason, the memory has stuck with me, though it has transformed from one of fear to one of wistful shame.

There is a profound existential dimension to Census. What, Ball asks, makes a person? What makes a life worth living? And who are we to judge? The census itself serves as a powerful metaphor in this regard, and not only in the most obvious sense. The old man does more than count the people he meets. He tattoos a mark on their ribs - a shape that differs from census to census. Some welcome the tattoo and proudly show the marks of censuses past. Some are more reluctant. Some oppose it violently, though the old man notes early on that it makes no difference to him; he doesn’t really care about the work of the census. The act of tattooing in the book is reminiscent of Kafka’s horrifying machine from In The Penal Settlement. What it leaves behind on the skin is the ultimate truth: existence. That some people do not get the mark adds a caveat: one can exist without seeming to be being counted.

These same considerations surface when we are told about the old man’s wife. She was a clown of sorts who once attended The Shape School, a mysterious training college. Her act, more performance art than entertainment, riffed heavily (and absurdly) on the idea of being. In one show, she mimicked a member of the audience until the two were indistinguishable. In another, she sat on a chair with a trumpet and did nothing until the audience left, bored. Over the following week she tracked each one down, blew the trumpet in their face and handed them a note. It read: It is your life, your presence is required. You can’t say where a thing will happen.

With Census, Jesse Ball has achieved what he set out to do in a beautifully original way. He has built a world in which his brother can simply be, and allowed us as readers to appreciate and come to love him. If there is such a thing as what I will, with apologies, crassly call disability literature, then surely Census must be both a major work and a watershed moment. Yet any attempt to reduce it to one of its constituent elements would be doing it a disservice. Census is a deeply humane and tender novel, brimming with compassion, deep and original thought, sweetness and, yes, even humour. It asks big questions, and offers gentle guidance towards meaningful answers. It also throws down the gauntlet for how future writers might consider engaging artistically with their loss. Ball suggests that while breaking from the 'real' might not bring someone back to life, it can give them new life. To this end, there is a particularly poignant passage where Ball breaks the fact/fiction divide. On the final pages, there is a series of family photos in which little Abram (he appears to be no more than ten in the most recent one), is captured going about his everyday life with his family. The photos are referenced in the novel - the son literally becomes Ball’s brother - but new context is imagined for him. These are the old doctor’s memories. It is a touching nod to the ultimate purpose of what is an astoundingly good book.