"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.