"review" · concenter · fiction · Lit · mystery · philosophy/criticism · recommend · wondermous

{book} once begun

silence-once-begunSilence Once Begun by Jesse Ball

Pantheon Books, 2014. 232 pages

“The following work of fiction is partially based on fact.”

Over the course of several months, eight people vanish from their homes in the same Japanese town, a single playing card found on each door. Known as the “Narito Disappearances,” the crime has authorities baffled—until a confession appears on the police’s doorstep, signed by Oda Sotatsu, a thread salesman. Sotatsu is arrested, jailed, and interrogated—but he refuses to speak. Even as his parents, brother, and sister come to visit him, even as his execution looms, and even as a young woman named Jito Joo enters his cell, he maintains his vow of silence. Our narrator, a journalist named Jesse Ball, is grappling with mysteries of his own when he becomes fascinated by the case. Why did Sotatsu confess? Why won’t he speak? Who is Jito Joo? As Ball interviews Sotatsu’s family, friends, and jailers, he uncovers a complex story of heartbreak, deceit, honor, and chance.–publisher’s comments

Errol Morris brought more than justice to the wrongly accused when he brought The Thin Blue Line (1988) to the screen. He demonstrated how fiction lies within the justice system and how reality reveals itself in the imaginations of human perception. Both institutions and human beings can be corrupted; the question is whether doubt can lead to a liberating or confining truth. I thought of Errol Morris as I sank into Silence Once Begun, Jesse Ball’s latest novel.

“One has the impression one can know life, actual life, from its simulacrums by the fact that actual life constantly deceives and reveals, and is consistent in doing so” (4).

Jesse Ball, self-proclaimed professor of “lucid dreaming and lying,” exercises his particular gifts with the latter. We have a want to forget that as a gifted storyteller, he is a practiced liar. The heartbreak of increasing solitude and silence experienced in the narrator’s own life is raw enough to cite the provenance of a genuine artifact. “The following work of fiction is partially based on fact,” but what in the work is partial, or impartial? Silence Once Begun invites suspicion. What becomes awkward for the reader is when the suspicion is found directed not toward Ball or a character, but inwardly. Readers who favor romance and/or political activism will find themselves the easiest targets, among other professional prevaricators.

That smooth teller of tales that drew his reader in a single sitting through door after door and haunted them long after the curfew ended, confines the whimsy of his silvery tongue to his own “prefatory material” and Jito Joo. Joo takes on the silkiness of Milton’s Satan and I remain unconvinced that Kakuzo is able to vindicate her. Questions of love’s selfishness and sacrifice deepen the mystery Ball would document. As it is, the fans of Ball’s novels since Samedi the Deafness will be jolted awake by the halting language of concrete explication. Even the stories spun by relatives as a means to explain one another, find sentences short and constantly revisited. The language Ball adopts is not only one familiar to reportage, but translation—and the earnestness of finding the correct expression.

Oda Sotatsu’s mother is fond of telling stories by means of clarification: When talking with the mother, the interviewer notes how “the impression of exactitude remains” (18). He experiences a feeling that what she is saying is true; he sees what she sees before the evidence presents itself, before what she has seen appears (e.g. butterflies). Whether the mother is telling the truth about butterflies is negligent without a strong enough moral imperative. In Silence Once Begun, lives are hanging in the balance.

The interview is seeking someone to speak where Oda Sotatsu would not and now cannot. Once a silence had begun, can the silence ever be broken? The novel ponders how reputations are powerful constructs (29): how we are represented, expressed, speaks for us; it can certainly lie for us. Jito says of role-playing: “Each person chooses his life from all the roles in all the theaters. We are a prisoner and his love. For I am sometimes one and sometimes the other. You are one and then the other” (187). The liberated speak from a place of privilege and the imprisoned the limitation of choice. In a mystery based on mistaken identification, conversations on love and identity are the discourse that bind, and often blind the character and reader both.

“You don’t know me at all, I said, but I have a feeling that you know about something that I know” (Interviewer 163).

How can we truly know the other? We understand that different kinds of knowing exist. As one character after another jockeys for supremacy of knowledge, we test their validity. Jiro claims, “He hadn’t done it, because I believe he hadn’t done it” (45). The sister is an educated one yet distanced; Kakuzo is the architect of the crime and vain; Jito Joo, the most intimate of actresses.

Jesse Ball, the interviewer, is consciously aware of influence. How his ability to capture an image through a lens is affected, is made literal and then figurative when he takes photographs of the prison and other locations. He questions his ability to be objective, and the state of his relationship with an interviewee can be temperamental at best. He finds amusement and delight without anticipation by the reader. Even as it could be argued that “everything is contextual” (41), there is still the phenomena of surprise. Few could demonstrate the art of startling the reader into remembering that not everything can be anticipated nor traced back to an origin like Ball; which is key in a story where explanations are not just obscured, but elusive.

The attempt of the novel reads like Joo’s own: “I believe in discovering the love that exists and then trying to understand it. Not to invent a love and try to make it exist, but to find what does exist, and then to see what it is” (180). A sacrifice exists at the heart of this novel, more than one; and a person, more than one. Interpreting it and their meaning, to see what it is is a marvelous experiment, and a convicting one. At what point in the time-line is the act of invention initiated, because it would be dangerous to mistake Joo for not inventing a love into existence, wouldn’t it? Maybe your reading will disagree. Silence Once Begun interrogates human impulses: what we would remember, and what we would choose to conveniently forget.

If your cups of tea always require coherence in the mystery to be opaque in the end, to invite an explanatory flashback with solid connecting lines rather than perforated, any of Ball’s work will be uncomfortable, but none more than Silence Once Begun. This is not to suggest Ball leaves lazy gaping holes. His work is impressively spare. No, coherence needn’t have a clear answer everything, and Ball’s coherence artfully alludes to the corrupted nature to the human, the memory, the fictions we tell to make sense of things. The mystery is how we can ever pretend to be so very certain—so certain that we can carry through the life-threatening convictions that we do.

Jesse Ball’s provocation can be both frustrating and an absolute delight; which is how I could describe the conclusion. Ball makes the narrative personal and familiar, investing the reader in a summation that is as tidy as the novel will allow while yet demanding its lingering effect. He does not employ Errol Morris’ chilling play button on a tape recording at the end, but he does compel the reader to ask what it is we wanted to believe happened when the world turned upside down, when the expanding silence entered the room and asked us to wonder why.

"review" · fiction · Lit · poet-related · recommend · Uncategorized · wondermous

{book} the curfew

To begin: When the publisher claims at the end of their synopsis that Jesse Ball’s “The Curfew is a mesmerizing feat of literary imagination,” you may think it an excitable exaggeration. It isn’t. Nor is Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s observation that “There seems to be no other novelist writing today who is capable of so thoroughly disarming one’s narrative expectations.” Writers and Readers alike: prepare to be equally intimidated and inspired.

Those who have read Jesse Ball–and adore him, I would recommend you The Curfew. It has all the fluid strange mesmerism of Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors (my favorite), while pushing creative boundaries: for both author and narrative. One sitting would be best for this darkling daydream.

William and Molly lead a life of small pleasures, riddles at the kitchen table, and games of string and orange peels. All around them a city rages with war. When the uprising began, William’s wife was taken, leaving him alone with their young daughter. They keep their heads down and try to remain unnoticed as police patrol the streets, enforcing a curfew and arresting citizens. But when an old friend seeks William out, claiming to know what happened to his wife, William must risk everything. He ventures out after dark, and young Molly is left to play, reconstructing his dangerous voyage, his past, and their future. An astounding portrait of fierce love within a world of random violence, The Curfewis a mesmerizing feat of literary imagination.~publisher’s comment

As you may guess from the synopsis, The Curfew is set in a dystopia. But one should not expect extensive world-building. Those familiar with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale understand atmosphere can be derived from a precision of language, of image. Ball is no more superfluous. The effect is startling, and embarrassing to the next tome in line.

Ball maintains a tight focus and casual periphery. His cast, their world, is small, often claustrophobic and other times cozy. He creates a randomness that can remain random and yet also gain greater significance as the narrative continues. In The Curfew, the violence collects into a pervasive sense of fear. By the time the father must go out after curfew, you are terrified for him. Those stories, those small everyday interactions between characters slip into a deepening pool from which the novel draws emotion. That “fierce love” left me breathless, the ending left my hands trembling.

When those ministers of “show don’t tell” jab you repeatedly with their red pen, few are recommending the level of revelation The Curfew attains.

The novel is written in the shifting between 1st and 3rd person, holding present tenses. The 3rd person narrator? Oh, but I’ve been pondering this. I believe it to be a figure such as the one discussed on pages 126-8. And if so…the implications. The Curfew is told in three Parts (or Acts). They become increasingly abstract. As the reader becomes more and more attached to the little girl and her father, the movement away from the concrete is for the better–a beautiful coping mechanism.

Ball likes to mind the visual impact with dash (–) introductions to dialog, unexpectedly fluid segues, font shifts. Riddles* make their return, though with a more overt role. His repetition of images, the novels preoccupations (seats, strings, epigraphs, lies, “ideas,” etc). The use of puppetry takes on a more surprising presence than I’d anticipated; not that I figured it would remain as obvious as “people as puppets,” but the use of the puppeteer’s narrative structure (105-6), compounded by Ball’s, is marvelous.

The Curfew is a puzzle. On a primary level, the reader understands what is going on. By that ending–on another level–you are not entirely certain. This should not repel you. The response could very well be my own as I may be denying what I am being told. However, I do believe there are cues to suggest a second or third look, none of which I am going to share before your first reading. The result is an expansion of narrative possibility. The Curfew is a complex work that can be read very simply. But why you would leave it there, I’m not entirely sure.

Ball has an elegant hand with the bizarre; which may not resonate with the greater audience. The father was a world-renowned violinist. His new job is for a Mason, consulting with people and writing epigraphs for headstones. The daughter is mute and clever and irrepressible. The mother is perceived differently by the father and the daughter, but haunts both. You learn of them through external interactions, dialog, encounters. They are exactly as they seem in an environment where little is certain. Aren’t they?

There is an old-world feel despite the sense that the setting could occur anywhere, anytime. There is a surreality in even the most mundane, in the quiet and sorrowful moments that enthrall the reader. And ultimately, there is an aching familiarity; this is where empathy and fear take hold and linger long after the book closes. What does happen to the father? What happens to the little girl?

There is an ending. But I guarantee it will have you working your way back through to the beginning, after a recovery period. And you won’t hate Jesse Ball for doing that to you, submerging you back into the book. At least, you mightn’t.

____________________________________

recommendation: I understand that I really respond to Jesse Ball’s writing on a level that challenges articulation, especially with only one reading of the text. While The Curfew takes notable departures from previous novels, I would recommend you start with either Samedi the Deafness (a suspense thriller) and/or The Way Through Doors (a love story) and enter them with an open mind, patient, clear of expectation; this way you can get the style of his writing (voice/form). my reviews for: The Way Through Doors and Samedi the Deafness

For fans of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. For those who like Poetry, Riddles, Literature, the Absurd. Not to be read in proximity to lengthy dystopian fantasies (for both their sakes).

of note: I was reminded of the film Children of Men (2006), as well as the book The Beauty & The Sorrow by Peter Englund in that explanations for the current State are intimate and limited to a character’s understanding of the events/context and their pertinence.

There are conversations The Curfew broaches regarding Art, the Individual, Oppression, Ideas, etc. that I didn’t even touch, partially to keep the “review” relatively spoiler-free. I would love to talk about any of them.

______________________________

*I am bad with riddles, but I wasn’t put off. However, I would like to read this with someone who is good at them.

———————————————————–

The Curfew by Jesse Ball : vintage contemporaries, 2011. 195 pages, tradepaper.

{images: 1) a promo sticker Jesse Ball created for book’s release via Vintage Books/Anchor Books tumblr. 2) cover. }

"review" · fiction · Lit · poet-related · recommend

senses required

Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball

Vintage Contemporaries, 2007

291 pages.

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?   ~Publisher’s Comments.

I picked up Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness after having read his The Way Through Doors, 2009. (I noted that read here.)

I confess that I am not entirely sure what to do with Samedi the Deafness. I reread the last page three times; considering the possible nuances each time. What was the page saying? I am still uncertain. Many times in the latter half of the book I felt like this: “James felt uncertain. He seemed to be staring at a broad sheet of paper spread out upon the ground, and all the letters wiggling and moving of their own accord whenever he looked closely.” (98)

Once immersed in the labyrinthine structure of the ‘verisylum’ (an asylum for the treatment of Liars/Lying) the already bizarre events of the mystery contort, twisting and turning until we all fall down, or the book gets set aside in order to refocus the eyes and muddled mind. There is distraction and possible digression. And I rarely mind the digression, but usually there is something to rescue in the leave-taking. I am still working out the interjections of the childhood remembrances of Ansilon, James’ only (and invisible) friend who is an owl.

In the winding trials of deciding what is truth or lie; there is the ‘what is relevant or not’? Who is whom and why? The novel is cast with a large number of liars. Worse, these Liars have little need of a motivation to lie; or do they? You have to think to read this novel. But there must be a threshold whereby the reader should not think too much. With James, you just sort of go with things.

In the going along with circumstances you lose the urgency of the part of the plot where a terrorist-type action is promised to be perpetrated. An event of catastrophic outcome will occur on the seventh day, Saturday, or Samedi (French for Saturday). By the time you decide to care again about the seventh day, rather than the romance and oddities occurring in the verisylum, some of the heat is gone. It is too late after all. Now you work to only understand why. And why might the reader feel this way? It is a combination of mental exhaustion and just going along with James’ decisions.

**

A bit more on the verisylum:

This is a verisylum, [McHale explains]. There was only ever one before this, built in 1847. 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. Instead of giving medications, or applying truth-rubrics, Margret Selm came up with her own method. She established the parameters for the creation of a country house in which all behavior would be governed by a set of arbitrary rules. There would be no prohibition against lying but the individuals present in the house, the chronic liars, would find in the arbitrary rules, which, 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. On that truth too likes can be based.

The ‘arbitrary rules’ are a source of humor in their absurdity, and a device to further the mystery saturating the book. “Cases where the lying ends up compromising the identity of the individual,” is an idea explored from cover to cover. Due to the Lying of many of the characters, there is confusion as to who they are—really? And we need to know who they are and how they are involved in the plot to carry out the Samedi-threat; at the very least, we want to know what they have to do with James and his outcome.

And is James a Liar? And in what way? A mask, a perfect imitation of his own face, was provided him (33). One of my favorite quotes of the book: “Sunday was always the best days for being the self you had intended to be, but were not, for one or another reason.” James relays this thought on ‘day the first’, on the first page of the novel. He is going out to be the self he intends to be and ends up in the midst of a political intrigue and a romantic entanglement.

There are the Hitchcockian twists of what is and what is perceived. Also there is a political component, a criticism. When abducted, James is driven “in the northwest direction” (45), and he is questioned in a mansion. James is put in a situation that compromises his credibility with the police (the Mayne incident); not unlike Roger O. Thornhill in the 1959 film North by Northwest whose reliability is initially questioned.

James sits in the back seat of the car, “beside him, the third man” (45). And there is the exploration of this unknown quantity. Who is Samedi? Who is Grieve, who is…? The “third man” is a question; and sometimes I find myself thinking of James as the answer. More Graham Greene references anyone? The decent into the wine cellar at the end, in search of the bunker, the maze, the trap, the inescapable catacomb-like claustrophobia. There is even a Ferris Wheel scene (268); an iconic image in the The Third Man, 1949 (Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles).

What could those references mean but to provide an ambiance, an added level of intrigue, an exploration of similar themes and ideas? A nod to inspirational sources? We know that nothing is as it seems, but answers are not necessarily absent. The landscape is often littered with clues.

James receives a note under the door: “Do you know the story of the kingdom of foxes? A man goes to live in the kingdom of foxes and he survives only by believing that which is not told him” (225).

I choose to read this excerpt as a reminder to go ahead and take what is recalled from outside the verisylum (from before) as real, and truthful, and possible. What goes on within is subject to question. Just as James has to decide what to believe, so does the reader. In the complicated unfolding, and refolding, and yanking the sheet and whipping it flat out before you, it becomes easiest to concentrate on figuring out what James has figured out, so you can just believe as he does–which is still a bit hard going.

She [a girl James converses with] wondered how it was that anyone could write a play at all. Basing things on real life, she thought, was easy enough. But to make things up entirely, well, that was something else. I mean, it seems like you would have to be psychotic. How could you remember what was even real? James had loudly agreed with her, he too, he said, wondered how anyone might remember what was real. (21)

It is easy to get lost and distracted in the verisylum. And James’ stay is a goodly portion of the read. How his stay works into a revelation of Samedi and his notes and motives is ever present, and yet not. Negotiating the ‘arbitrary rules’ and Ansilon interactions take precedence. The onward and unstoppable passing of time toward day the seventh takes on inevitability and only how James will participate in it and/or survive narrows the focus. Sure, the mentioning of catastrophic outcomes are imagined and discussed, but do the characters or readers care. I found myself strangely lacking a sense of horror at the scope of Samedi’s terror. I was busy, as ever, with the mechanics of things: of relationships, of arbitrary rules and their subsequent interactions, the construction of the verisylum, how the object of destruction was to work, who was whom and how—or even why…sifting through ambiguities and image-ridden scenes full of ominous portent.

There are comments regarding Samedi the Deafness and Ball having a likeness to Kafka. I am thinking of the Absurdity Kafka employs in The Trial (1914). One goes mad trying to make sense out of the nonsense, out of the illogical and arbitrary systems, that some would think would have been set out perfectly logical and deliberate in its course (but in reality never really was). I have to think on the Kafka connections I feel there is something missing, and I am trying to figure out what exactly.

That last page has thrown me off…not that much of the book comes together for me.

When I consider how the verisylum’s function would “as time passed, construct an identity for [the inmates],” what might this mean for the ending, and this waking in a lit room with Grieve, and with mentions of a beginning; “we have only minutes before it begins” (281)?

James awakes on the first page, in the dark. On the last page he wakes in the light. A change has occurred; an identity formed, or merely fleshed out?

I told Sean that this is a book with which I would enjoy participating in a book club. It begs conversation; primarily, shared perspectives as to what was actually going on.

Who is Cecily? And how does her relationship with James inform his relationship with Grieve?

What of that game Rovnin?

There are plenty of discussions to be had regarding Identity, Lying, Reprisals, Perceiving/Actuality. What is visible and authentic? And what dictates/defines or illuminates either?

**

The format of the book…

There are two quotes to read. Then there are seven sections, each differentiated chronologically by days, starting with “day the first” and ending with “day the seventh.” You are reminded of the day, even after the single page announcing the day, upon the upper right side of the right-hand page. Seems reasonable. Except, what about the pages that do not have said reminder? And what about those pages (167-177) within “day the fifth” that read “day the first” in that reminder spot? Seems there are too many pages to have error as an explanation. And Ball appears very conscientious with his compositions. He includes drawings, affects spacing, font size, and italics or bold print; has pages with short sections, maybe only a sentence or two. He employs the dash followed by dialogue; differentiates notes. So what is going on with the days? I read those pages and wonder. Will write something of an answer when I figure it out, or someone tells me and I can share it.

**

A body is driven to turn the pages because they are curious. And the oddities are charming. The ambiguity can be frustrating; and the verisylum antics can elicit heavy growling sighs. Some moments feel indecipherable and I feel sure this is meant and I can be okay with this. If they were not meant, do not tell me that so I can remain happy enough with my conclusion. Ah well, never mind, elucidate at will.

James discovers what the plot asks him to, but said discovery may not lead to the conclusion one might expect. A good plot twist is a delight. I only wish I could identify the shape of the end product. I know I will have to re-read this book.

I think Ball would do well writing those quirky indie romantic comedies. I think he should cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Daschanel. His interludes between his male protagonist and the love interest are fantastic—almost overwhelmingly.

I recommend Samedi the Deafness, but I found it more difficult to pool clear thoughts or ideas from than the more accessible (though complicated) read The Way Through Doors.

"review" · fiction · Lit · poet-related · recommend · wondermous

doors and daydreams, or daydreams as doors

You may actually want to have read the The Way Through Doors first this time.

But I wouldn’t mind a read through my, er, notes, ramblings, take..?

****

The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball

Vintage Contemporaries, Random House, 2009

240 pages.

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 narrative. ~Publisher’s Comments

It was great! A quick, captivating sort of read. Exactly like being in a daydream. I loved it, and wish I could experience it anew time after time. ~ My friend Katherine’s comments at goodreads.com

I am going to have to read this book again; partly because I enjoyed it and partly because it is like reading a daydream. And then there is the pace that ever propels you forward. Jesse Ball’s The Way Through Doors is a fluid continuous movement of a nearly flawless narrator. The narrator’s words keep coming, though Selah Morse’s voice must surely be tired, as the character Ilsa Marionette asks him, “Are you not tired from speaking so long?” (paragraph 1854 (out of 1905)).

The premise of a young man rescuing a stranger, a girl, whom he then claims a relationship reminded me of IMDb’s Trivia on While You Were Sleeping (1995). Apparently the original story for the film was of a man rescuing a woman instead of the now known Lucy (Sandra Bullock) claiming engagement to Peter (Peter Gallagher). The original was nixed because “many studio executives thought this to be too predatory.” I felt a little the same with the idea of the synopsis of The Way Through Doors. Near book’s end you may be disturbed in other ways; and depending on the angle, the idea of the synopsis is still yet troublesome.

The book reads with a liquid ease of intermingling abstract and concrete. In fact, Ball creates a solution that makes separating the two near impossible. Ball is a Poet and in this work that evident is an understatement. He moves through stories with fairly short sentences and the imagery necessary to each piece is fully illustrated with the simultaneity (complexity) of the straight-forward and the both elusive and illusive subtexts.

Ball includes songs and riddles and tales reminiscent of the folk and fairy. Our narrator moves through dreams and memories and stories (both fact and fiction); we are read articles, and excerpts from pamphlets (written by our narrator), letters and messages; and we are given hand-drawn sketches. Despite the variety of these devices (or modes) used, the reader is taken along rather seamlessly. Really, I would encourage the person picking up the book to have long hours to spend with little interruption. It is “quick and captivating.” It finds its capture in its lack of seams and the reader’s good memory and attention to detail—or possibly not. You could read and enjoy and not understand a flipping thing, or care as to how you got to the end page.

The absurd could be overly distracting but for the humor it brings, and the fact that the writer makes the absurd normal. And upon considering the bazaar interactions, and missed interactions, the absurd is actually fairly commonplace. That said, the characterization of our narrator, Selah Morse, and really, all the characters in the book would be grounded but for the fact I kept visually Terry Gilliam directing the cinematic version, or Wes Anderson and his clever wit (I would put the guess artist in the corduroy suit and cast Jason Schwartzman as Selah Morse). The characters would be grounded but for the absolute surreal quality from the very start of the novel; okay, not very start, but close, paragraph 31, but perhaps feeling a strangeness about everything settling in about paragraph 35? The sense of the surreal and the fusion of any defined concrete and abstract in the novel may contribute to the categorization of “psychological fiction” (as noted with the copyright and shelving information). Everything feels Real and yet Not. And it could be Real, and yet perhaps not? I suppose you could say that it is as Real and Fictional as anything truly is, and what a lovely venue to explore ideas; and just tell really excellent stories.

–And all the while, said the count, someone murmuring, Who can say therefore where a certain person is, for what is 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. (966)

The book is not strung together by merely a narrator who guides (speaks) the entirety, with his singularly styled voice (despite the shifting dialogue and perspectives and modes). There are images like the needle and sewing; the craft of embroidering. The idea of the pains it would take to dissolute the fluidity and motion of Real and Not is like the “pains to unpin” stories running side by side; or even within one another. Though each moment might say something as itself and for itself, it also contributes to the whole; in this case the resemblance and text that is The Way Through Doors. Each moment interwoven also illustrates an idea that the makings of a story, or character, (or person) are complex, and the arrival at some semblance of a product is layered, or better, saturated.

But what to take seriously, or how to take the pieces (if you choose to breathe while reading this liquid novel)?

–Such a wide and never-ending stair, said the guess artist, is in danger of ceasing to be a stair to become instead a metaphor of some kind of even an allegory.

–I shouldn’t like that, said Morris.

–Let us not think of it again, said Selah. (1408-10)

The narrative is self-conscious.

The context is Count M. telling Kolya about a dream: (enjoy, and please remember that Selah Morse is telling a series of stories to head trauma girl aka Mora Klein):

He began to speak to me on some subject, and I responded. Someone shouted something from across the field, and then 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 within it the implication of all other 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 though occurred to me: how could a person wander into a  novel. It must be a dream. Then realizing that I was in a dream, all became possible.

I said to my friend, This is a dream. And he looked at me blankly.

–That is ridiculous, he said. But funny. Imagine that! You, Robert, saying that this is all a dream with that dead serious expression on your face. (979-81)

The story anticipates the listener: as it should. One of the complaints and difficulties ascribed the written story is that the oral tradition allows for the gauging of the listener; the storyteller sees and hears and senses the audience. [And perhaps, if the pacing of self-conscious remarks throughout this story are off pace, the sympathy is dependent upon how close you read to the writer (and/or editor/collaborator).] At paragraph 1565, Selah (who is searching through Through Doors for Mora Klein) has yet another set-back. A message he and the guess artist reads tells them:

UNFORTUNATELY MY FOOLISH LITTLE BIRDS, YOU’VE COME TO THE RIGHT INN AT THE WRONG TIME, OR THE WORNG INN AT THE RIGHT TIME, OR THE RIGHT INN AT THE RIGHT TIME, BUT IN THE WORNG WAY. THAT’S THE TROUBLE. (1563).

[…]

Both men [Selah and the guess artist] looked at each other. Selah’s face looked a little strained. He was desperately unhappy, but trying not to show it. The search for Mora Klein had become long and involved, and he wanted very much for her to be found, and soon. (1565).

By the one thousand five hundred and sixty fifth paragraph you are well ready for Selah to finally meet up with Mora Klein. However, he does not meet up with her until paragraph — I’m not going to say, but it is a while longer. And since the story acknowledges its length and frustrations and eagerness, too, to find the outcome of this adventure, you settle in a bit more comfortably back into the rhythms (i.e. oddities) of the dreamscaped story. Bring on the dog that plays the fiddle’s submission to the World’s Fair 7 June 1978, with his “a Treatise on Fiddle Playing as a Tool for Governance of Happenstance.”

**

The format of the book.

The Way Through Doors is lovely and clever. It would also be a challenge to audio-book creators.

The visual aids the reader contributing heavily to the shifts of narrative countenance and the seamless transitions in the novel as we are guided through doors.

The dialogue is set apart with an introductory dash, and/or continues from written cues. You fall into this easily and I find it quite refreshing. (And I think I shall try this with my own narrative attempts.) More, the effect on the page is a sense of the uncluttered, an uninterrupted gazing.

The use of font size guides the reader into a shift in scene; a prolonged dissolve, a very slow fade that bridges into and through the next “door.” The book only uses two fonts sizes really, and some all-capped moments. When the text shifts to the smaller print, it will shift back to the regular fairly soon after, when its purpose is served.

The narrative voice is consistent throughout. Sure, the dialogue has character, but consciousness of the narrative device never fully dissipates (whether intended or not). It is like a body telling you a story and can make reflexive changes of voice or expression or sketch out a variety of scenarios and scenery and you are still conscious of the body before you, even as you are led to imagine and picture else. I like this. The trick, however, is to move a reader into a sense of a differentiated space. The font, among written visual cues help, like a gesture of a character, a movement to separate themselves within the presented space: “Gustav [the apprenticed guess artist] made little fists and hunched over. He growled a little bit like a dog and then straightened up. His eyes had gotten very big” (881).

Gustav is asked to guess a man’s thoughts, and proceeds to launch into the story that lies therein. Between the man telling Gustav, “Go on” (880), and his physical movements and the subsequent storytelling mind-reading, there is no font change, but there is the placement of paragraph 881 onto the next page. This may be incidental as there is also a large solid black circle below paragraph 880 before we turn our eyes to the next page. There are no “chapter” breaks in The Way Through Doors. The solid black dot is a visual break and a mental breath. You move away from letter forms to this visual change and then back. The story remains fluid but a dramatic pause has been created; not unlike an oral storyteller taking a sip from a glass. There are five, I think: I flipped through the pages three times. Three are toward the front, fairly close together and two nearer the back.

There are no page numbers, only paragraph markers for every five indentions, like marking poems, but for paragraph (obviously). There is no intended break between “stories.” Though there are doors and stairs, movement doesn’t require them; and their symbolic natures, though still useful, can become, just as easily, useless in the perspective of the whole. Portals vary in form, and their interpretations create even greater variance.

**

Ball does have a “gift for narrative.” I wonder that he must be an auditory writer. He has a fantastic vocabulary. It is always a joy and triumph to see the word “oubliette” on a page (928). “Lincoln gestured that the many strange and impetuous avatars and incarnations that accompanied him in the form of bespectacled clerks should be off for a moment about some putative business. They left Lincoln and Lefferts in a pronounced globe of quiet” (1496). “Pronounced globe of quiet.” There is a term Natalya’s class uses for words that you will not find Ball using, label words: the everyday and overused, and belonging to 3rd grade reading levels.

A reader can bask in the lexicon provided. And they should.

I mentioned repetitive images: the sewing, there are shears as well (a terrible moment 588+). There are the stairs and doors and windows, of course. There is the going up and the descending; atmospheric conditions (lighting, weather, etc). There are also other threads pulled, by way of characters moving in and out via their story told, or referenced, or remembered; conjured via diverse methods. There is a drawing that reappears over and again, and places revisited in various ways. The book feels a bit random; and even vague; but these repetitions (through whatever means they are brought fore) create a sense of purpose to the whole (the novel).

The Publisher’s comments remark upon themes such as: “love and storytelling, hope and identity.” Yes. And as the storytelling is self-conscious, one is not left completely trying to grasp what the hell is actually going on with all these stories and memories and guesses. For example: We are given an idea as to how Selah reads morals, “This is how all morals work” (1775-6). We are told by the narrator Selah Morse whom the character Sif Aloud actually is (paragraphs 1880+). We are reassured that Rita is quite real (1883).

I am going to have to re-read to see who Mora Klein might be. The Publisher’s comments say that “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.” Selah invents Sif as an ideal; while also casting her somewhat as an avatar of Mora Klein and who, in the end, Mora decides to take cues from in order to please Selah; and possibly because Sif is an interesting and developed character (where Mora is created and yet not). Selah is trying to find her, but I cannot find the “hoping she will recognize herself part;” unless recognition has more to do with who you desire to be than how you or another might have known yourself to be yesterday, or a minute before.

In the end, Selah finds Mora in the story he tells to keep Mora awake. And in the end Selah keeps the Mora he has found and helped redefine or craft. The girl hit by the taxi was strangely unblemished but for the head trauma which itself yielded no obvious exterior flaws. Her insides were left unwritten, and Selah has provided both her, and the reader, with her (new) identity. When ‘Mora’ is seen at the end to be as entrancing a center to the world about her as she’s ever been, and capable of drawing that impossible drawing, don’t we believe that Selah has guessed the amnesiac’s identity correctly? Through the Dreaming and the Real (which may just be another level of the former) Selah has found clues and signifiers of who she is. “She [Mora] felt certain of him. –He was right about me, she said to herself” (1903-04).

Mora sits alone on the beach, taking her turn at dictating the terms of the story she and Selah might now play; “Let us agree to say when you return without breakfast that you have been gone a month…” (1889). Regardless of where the relationship is going, we are all sent forward, “Everyone came to stand near, and each one held his breath to see what would happen next” (the end, 1905). Forget the pesky detail of to whom was the girl waving when hit by the taxi. Forget that she might have been something or someone or someone else’s. And never wonder if Mora Klein isn’t just another Sif… There is always enough improbability to support the surface of a dream “where all becomes possible.” Yet, Selah Morse heads off up the boardwalk and we are left with Mora and her thoughts; the narrator separating himself for the first time in the novel. Mora emerges from a series of stories, an invention of Selah, as her own.

[Selah is Federico Fellini and this novel is 8 ½ (1963) (minus the clowns)? One could make a study of the women in this novel alone, and how they revolve around Selah and other characters (invented by Selah). Alas, perhaps some other time.]

**

I woke from the novel somewhat wistful. I like the idea of wit and absurdity and the ease of transitions from the concrete and abstract. I am entertained by the tales and seeming randomness (artfully crafted) in The Way Through Doors. Like a good daydream I was swept off and along, and then I close the book and set it down, and “that quick and captivating” is a sentimental smile that recalls not much at all. The book is in the return pile to the library with a stick note somewhere saying, “Read this one again.” It is only the effort of desiring conversation and contemplation that I thought I should have sipped, and now flip through pages and memory.

The format stuck, as I am fascinated by the ideas of supporting the text with the lay of it. A few of the stories stuck, whether I uncovered any relevance for their existence. There were moments I was unsure of error or cleverness. “They ran away back down the staircase”(1665). I thought I was well enough oriented (Ball can situate a room) to think they were on the first floor, so what staircase taking them “out the door into the street?” Am I being reminded, disoriented in a dream? 1575-80 has Selah Morse and the guess artist exchanging dialogue I thought, but the text reads Selah, then the municipal inspector (who is Selah), Selah, and then the municipal inspector again. Is this use of one of the many ways Selah Morse is referred to (a municipal inspector, pamphleteer, young man, S.) as a way to illustrate Selah conversing with himself? Curious.

The Way Through Doors is for lovers of words, and wit, and absurdity; those who love tales, tilted perspectives, psychological fiction, and verse; for zine readers and writers.

The Way Through Doors reminded me of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, though not similarly formatted. The ease of transition to the first thought of a man to his revealed image as a fox who is like a man is Calvino-like as well. Anything seems possible and natural; though with Calvino I am so absorbed as to believe a cloven viscount could ride upon his horse before me and his innards stay in, or the non-existent knight may have actually battled. With both, Real is made dreamlike in reverie and the imaginative mind and the dream is made to be as Real as anything could be. I am more conscious of the playing and the clever with Ball than Calvino. Perhaps it is a difference in scope, purpose. Regardless one should not really compare the two. However, I should say that if you enjoyed this book, read Calvino. If you didn’t enjoy this book, read Calvino anyway; I recommend Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories.

If I were to have a book club, I would choose The Way Through Doors (this is in no way meant as an insult). I think Ball leaves us so many fascinating things to talk about, and perhaps after another read I will find connections and flesh out those themes. Or I could just daydream, as another might; find the entertainment in the experience and lay it back on the shelf for next year’s uninterrupted afternoon.