Nothing to Say?: Jesse Ball's "The Curfew"

Jesse Ball, publishing dystopia, and the triumph of marketing.

September 26, 2011

    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 work that I did before, I saw an advertisement in the paper. It read, Position requiring: ingenuity, restraint, quiet manner, odd hours, impeccable judgment, and eloquence. Unworthy candidates unwelcome. I was the only one to apply.

    The banal traits (memorizing poets) and trite tropes (visiting the grave in secret) do not create sympathy. This lack of sympathetic characters needn't be an issue (a novel can get by without a single character to care about), but there is no enigmatic conceit to keep us engaged, no plot to pull us along. By contrast, Ball's previous book, Samedi the Deafness, offered a thriller-esque conspiracy plot to keep the pages turning, and its invention of a "verisylum" — a sort of safehouse for chronic liars — was just the kind of vital enticement The Curfew lacks. The book's totalitarian regime will be familiar to anyone who has read dystopic fiction, seen a dystopic movie, or has heard a friend talk about either; the government has a "huge death cell" at the center of the city, it arrests first and assigns guilt later. It's difficult to even know why Ball chooses to set his book in a dystopia, other than that it allows him to position William as the prototypical sensitive soul amidst soul-crushing mechanization.

    At times Ball strains for what might be called "the philosophical." Musing on what William loves about music, he writes:

    William had stood many times before an audience, playing such pieces, and it was in this way that he sought to control the very passage of his life, deftly and without forethought, yet precisely and with enormous care. Part of it was to allow what was enormous, what was profound, without limiting it.

    These are not idle remarks. The tension between the spontaneous and the planned, the question of how one "allows" what is enormous, the splendid tension wrought from permitting what threatens to take one over: he gives William these lofty inclinations in barest outline and never returns to them.

    The Curfew also suffers from an unfortunate inclination toward preciousness. Take, for instance, this paragraph:

    He stood there before the house and it was as though someone shouted to him not to go in — as though he was gripped by hands and pulled away — as though,

    but rather no one was there. The street was quiet. Was he shaking? ...

    A poet such as Ball should know better than to play with enjambment like this. To be sure, the line break drives home Ball's point that the character is isolated, but is it really necessary to use a hatchet to make this incision? Reading The Curfew one so often feels that Ball draws on clever gestures to stress his points, giving into indulgences that diminish the form and substance of his book. 


    Ball has a certain rep: an author who writes his books in two to three weeks and hangs manuscript pages around him during the writing process. The publisher of his novels, Vintage, plays this up, including in press materials claims such as that Ball meditates in silence for weeks before beginning a book. To his credit, when asked about these things in interviews, Ball tends to downplay them, although he does admit to writing his books in a matter of weeks and occasional novellas in one sitting, and he claims that what is published is essentially a first draft. This may make for a pleasing visual image of a young, successful author, but it does not often make for good literature. The only writers that I've found who have done any good with a strict "no revisions" method of composition — César Aira and Javier Marías — are lucky to write a page in a day. Even with Aira's notably sleek, hundred-page books, that would be months of writing.

    Of course, we all like authors with entertaining myths attached to them, and they have a particular shine for publishers: at this difficult pass for literature, presses such as Vintage are more than ever looking for marketable quantities. They seem to have found just that in Ball. The biographical note that accompanies The Curfew is a thing of beauty, carrying just the light touch and distribution of detail that the novel itself lacks. It positions Ball as a mysterious, seductive figure, declaring him a writer, poet, and artist who has published a book of drawings as far away as Iceland. The bio also speaks to audiences, noting his acclaim from The Believer(shoring up his credentials with the hipsters), The Paris Review (he plays well with the medium-old New York literati), and the stately Best American Poetry series. It even slips in the fact that Ball is affiliated with the Art Institute, and that he teaches classes in both lying and lucid dreaming. What more is there to writing than to master those two things?

    In a climate where bookstores are leaning more on past sales as indicators and granting books less and less shelf time, an author with a marketable persona and quick, easy books is bound to appeal. Ball would seem to be ideal: his books are short and easy to produce, they sell well, and he tends to get lots of media attention and friendly reviews. In interviews Ball has repeatedly claimed to have a suitcase full of manuscripts just waiting to be published. I have no doubt thatThe Curfew will do well enough for Vintage and that Ball will open his suitcase for them again, and perhaps other publishers as well.

    Jesse Ball is hardly without talent, but, for me, The Curfew is far more interesting as a window into the mechanisms behind publishing, bookselling, and the crafting of a public persona than it is as a literary text. By all indications Ball is a genuine, interesting individual; I have no doubt that he's a charming person who would be a pleasure to talk to. He will be entertaining to watch as he continues to build up his career as a quirky postmodern man of literature. But I doubt I'll have reason to want to read any more of his writing.


    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!