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
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.