BY NOW, DYSTOPIAN FICTION has been served up just about every way possible. To my knowledge, one of the few ways it hasn't been attempted — or, at least, well executed — is in the realm of minimalism. That brings us to The Curfew, the third novel by Jesse Ball, a writer who in the past few years has carved out a quite visible and enviable place for himself as an experimental fiction writer, and as a poet and artist. The Curfew's shortcomings perhaps demonstrate why the minimalist dystopian novel has yet to find a successful practitioner, and for me they speak as well to the nature of authorship in our somewhat dystopian publishing moment.
All Ball's work tends to the minimalist. His sentences are short and direct, his paragraphs too. His novels have plenty of white space — both literally and metaphorically — and they stick very close to their central character. Like Ball's previous work, The Curfew's small confines are packed with sparse exchanges of dialogue. There are very few details, the clipped narration used for utilitarian scene-setting. Rarely does the language venture into the abstract.
The book is about a man named William and his daughter, Molly, who live in a totalitarian regime. The overthrow of the previous regime is handled so briefly as to essentially be a parenthetical — at some point in William's past the country wasn't totalitarian, then things changed very quickly — and now William lives a dual life as a writer of epitaphs (or "epitaphorist," in Ball's coinage) for gravestones and a member of the sect-like insurgency against the regime. The narrative focuses upon him, his wife, whom he lost tragically, and his daughter, who cannot communicate via spoken language.
Character can be a very tough thing for minimalism. By its nature the genre tends toward archetypes, and that lynchpin of minimalists — the telling detail — can easily descend into a kind of pat schoolroom exercise. Successful minimalists, like J.M. Coetzee, have a remarkable ability to inscribe a character within a setting, give her idiosyncratic features, and place her within a plot in the span of a few sentences. The Curfew does not manage this, and William and Molly never become more dimensional than cardboard cutouts. To be an epitaphorist, for instance, is a delightfully whimsical job for a man to have anywhere, much less in an iron-fisted regime, but Ball simply uses it to draw William as a romantic soul and a rebel, otherwise wasting a fine idea. For instance, after arranging a clandestine meeting with a woman to give her an illicit epitaph for her deceased husband, William engages in this underwhelming exchange:
— There will be two stones, he said. The first will be as they say. You determine the second. You cannot go to it, unless you are sure you are not followed. Do you understand?
Dora murmured yes.
Or later, when another client asks William how he came by his line of work, he replies:
— I was always good with puzzles, and I have memorized the complete works of five poets which I can recite on command. Four years ago, when I could no longer do the w...