Census is a beautiful portrait of parental love. Jesse Ball’s novel is dedicated to his brother, who died at 24. As a child, the author believed he would be his sibling’s carer. In the forward, Ball talks about the difficulty of writing a book from the perspective of a Down Syndrome adult: how to capture the perspective of someone who sees and experiences the world differently; someone who you have known and loved, who you have more memories of as a child than as an adult. His resolution is to place him at the centre. “I would make a book that was hollow. He would be there in effect.” Taking his childhood role as carer, Ball places himself in the role of the father. The book opens with the father finding out he has an incurable disease. He quits his job as a doctor and takes on the task of a census taker, packing himself and his son into their car to travel through towns from A to Z. There are notes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in this premise. This is the last journey. The Census Taker is sent out with a series of questions and the tools of his trade - a tattooing machine - with which he must mark the participants’ rib. The faceless and nameless bureaucracy of the Census is slightly Kafkaesque: reports are to be sent in and instructions adhered to without any obvious repercussions for disobedience. As they travel further along the road, entering townships increasingly decayed - industrial decline and poverty-stricken farming communities - the father’s questions change. What he seeks are different answers, ones that will explain his own situation, his son’s future and his own pain. Will the world be kind or cruel to his son? Who will protect him? Ball cleverly weaves in the memories of the father with the lives of those they meet on the journey. The small vignettes - tales of heartache, redemption and loss - help us see the relationship between father and son with increased clarity and give shape to the figure of the son. The interactions with the townspeople also help us to see the son: how people respond, and the father’s observations put humanity - both its care and harshness - under the spotlight. The writing is superb: lyrical yet spare. Unsentimental, beautiful and intelligent, Jesse Ball’s novel Census is outstanding. If you read one novel this year, make it this one.
“It isn’t terrible to die. It is simply terrible to be observed, and therefore to be somehow in hopeless peril. There is no distance a fish can go that will save it. From the moment at which it is observed, the fish is permitted a sort of grace that will be concluded with the bayonet of the cormorant’s beak.” Following a terminal diagnosis for his illness, a doctor who has been caring for his Down Syndrome son alone since his wife’s death takes a position as a census taker and sets off with his son to collect data from places increasingly distant from the circle on the map that contains the fully known zone of their lives. In what kind of world will he leave his son? What would the world be like without the presence of the one who wonders what the world would be like without him? As the census taker and his son travel through the various zones, from A towards Z, they visit the homes of a number of people (the census does not aspire to being exhaustive) and, without the presupposition of any types of answers, the census taker rigorously observes the particularities of the people they meet (the census does not presume either from or to generalities), carefully noting their stories without imposing himself in any way other than as catalyst-observer, enabling the respondent to look within and to reveal something unguarded, something often at once indicative both of damage and of what for want of a better word we could call goodness (the census is alert not so much to the ways in which people are harmed by the society of which they are a part but rather to the ways in which they display kindness despite these harms). The rigour of the census taker is a relinquishment of his participation in the world, the rigour of anyone who is going to die (all of us, in other words) and who wishes to see what kind of world they are both completely immersed in and leaving. “We as humans are so full of longing, what is blank eludes us. A census taker must above all attempt, even long for, blankness.” Through the practice of the census the census taker is perhaps also learning to see the world in a way similar to that of his son, who he regards as unburdened with a sense of self, and who appears to conceive of life spatially rather than temporally. It is the purpose of the census to lead us to perceive the world with immediacy and without projecting expectations or presuppositions upon it. “The wondrousness of experience resides in the discrimination, not in the name. So I would be speaking for a world without names - wherein we see what is, and are impressed by it - the impressions push into us and change us forever. This is the world I believe my son lives in.” The love of the father for his son is depicted with immense tenderness (Ball wrote the book for his brother Abram, who had Down Syndrome and died at age 24), and the account of their travels together towards Z, where the dying father will complete his withdrawal from existence and the son will take a train back towards the world at which this journey, this relinquishment, began, is deeply beautiful and sad. The prose achieves a peculiar intensity and a particularity of cadence that leaves a lasting impression upon the reader. “You are travelling towards your death. You have always been a census taker. But now your efforts are joined in the community of work.”
NAMED A RECOMMENDED BOOK OF 2018 BY
The New York Times - The Chicago Reader - Nylon - The Boston Globe - The Huffington Post - The Rumpus - The AV Club - Southern Living - The Millions - Buzzfeed - Esquire
A powerful and moving new novel from an award-winning, acclaimed author: in the wake of a devastating revelation, a father and son journey north across a tapestry of towns
When a widower receives notice from a doctor that he doesn't have long left to live, he is struck by the question of who will care for his adult son--a son whom he fiercely loves, a boy with Down syndrome. With no recourse in mind, and with a desire to see the country on one last trip, the man signs up as a census taker for a mysterious governmental bureau and leaves town with his son.
Traveling into the country, through towns named only by ascending letters of the alphabet, the man and his son encounter a wide range of human experience. While some townspeople welcome them into their homes, others who bear the physical brand of past censuses on their ribs are wary of their presence. When they press toward the edges of civilization, the landscape grows wilder, and the towns grow farther apart and more blighted by industrial decay. As they approach "Z," the man must confront a series of questions: What is the purpose of the census? Is he complicit in its mission? And just how will he learn to say good-bye to his son?
Mysterious and evocative, Census is a novel about free will, grief, the power of memory, and the ferocity of parental love, from one of our most captivating young writers.
`Ball indulges our natural curiosity about what's real and simultaneously repudiates the idea that it matters. This is a writer too interested in the transformative power of language to come down on one banal side or the other.' * Age * `A novel that is simultaneously powerful and elusive, whose dreamlike textures and sense of dislocation lend its reflection of our own fears genuine power, suggesting not just unsettling questions about our own unease about suffering, but also probing the uncertain intersection of fiction and reality, memory and imagination.' * Australian on A Cure for Suicide * `Subtle and breathtaking.' * New York Times on A Cure for Suicide * `A poet by trade, Ball understands the economy of language better than most fiction writers today.' * Huffington Post * `Jesse Ball [is] among our most compelling and daring writers today.' * LA Review of Books * `A young genius who hits all of the right notes.' * Chicago Tribune * `Strange, brief, beguiling...Ball's talents, both as a storyteller and a writer of prose, tend to burst the borders of his structures.' * James Wood, New Yorker, on Silence Once Begun *
Jesse Ball (1978-). Novelist, absurdist. Born in New York. His many and varied works are beloved in a dozen languages.