In His Effect

Daniel Davis Wood reviews Jesse Ball’s Census

Jesse Ball, Census.
Granta Books, £14.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

As a young boy living in upstate New York, Jesse Ball believed that when he became an adult he’d assume responsibility for his elder brother Abram. “I knew… that one day I would be his caretaker”, Ball writes in the foreword to his most recent novel, Census, “and that we would live together, could live together happily. As a child I assumed that duty in my mind and it became a part of me.” Abram was born with Down’s Syndrome and suffered from a range of unrelated complications. When he died at age twenty-four, Ball says, “he had been on a ventilator for years, been quadriplegic for years, had had dozens of operations… and I [had] spent many years at his bedside in the hospital.”

Census is, in its own way, a novel about Abram, or at least about his nature and the ways in which other people would respond to his presence. As Ball puts it, the book is really about “what is in my heart when I consider him and his life” — “something so tremendous, so full of light”. But Census offers no clear depiction of Abram and no account of his years. Although Ball considered putting together a book of that nature, he finally found the task impossible. Instead, he writes, “I realized I would make a book that was hollow. I would place him in the middle of it, and write around him for the most part. He would be there in his effect.”

Census follows an unnamed, indistinct father and son on their journey through the towns and villages of an unnamed, indistinct country. The father, a widower, has just been diagnosed with an unspecified terminal illness. The son, like Abram, has Down’s Syndrome — or an unspecified condition which presents very much like Down’s Syndrome — and as a result he requires constant supervision and care. The two of them are ostensibly census takers, performing what the father calls the “terrible and completely thankless work” of passing through a succession of places known only by a single letter — A, B, C, and so on — in order to fulfil the requirements of a scheme whose ultimate purpose lies far beyond their ken. But why should anyone in this country think of the census as something “terrible”? Because this is no ordinary census. The father had been a doctor in a previous life and the census requires his medical expertise. Of the first man whose presence he records, the father says:

He was the first one I tattooed, setting the mark there on the correct rib. It is how we know if someone has been counted. There are those who say the census is barbaric, and they bring this as evidence. But did I not let a census taker make these marks on myself, and on my son, and on my wife in censuses past?

Each census has its own shape, and should sit upon an agreed rib.

So far, so nebulous. No names for the characters, no real depth. No details on the location, no attempt to dispel the haziness that develops from the prolonged abstraction of the narrative. While the New York Times review of Census compared it to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), largely on the basis of its narrative premise, the novel’s disdain for particularities invites better comparisons to J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus (2013) and Iván Repila’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (2015). At one point the father refers to a nondescript township as an “archetype of the generic”, and the same phrase could apply equally to the personality of the man himself and the journey he embarks on with the boy. Clarity and specificity are reserved solely for the practices of the census, though these practices are plainly fabular and make no logical sense.

But all of this represents only the beginning of the strangeness of Census. As the father and son progress from place to place, the father reflects on his training as a census taker. He recalls enigmatic mantras and codes of conduct he has committed to memory: “A census taker must above all attempt, even long for, blankness.” He reflects on the remarks of the recruitment officer who told him that he had been offered the job “not because I felt that you could become a census taker, but because I know that you already are, already were a census taker. You have always been a census taker.” He philosophises on the nature of the census, construing the initiative as “a large instrument made up of living cells” in which “each cell is a census taker”, and he elaborates on the implied disposability of the administrators, like himself, who conduct the business of the census:

…the census takers must be seen to be completely harmless, even in so much as their presence itself might be harmful by dint of the responsibility one might bear for their presence. To wit — a census taker would never be admitted to a home if it were possible that he could sue for injuries sustained within.

This absolute lack of protection has at times led to the deaths of census takers in various places under circumstances which, had the census takers been ordinary citizens, would clearly be judged murder.

There’s something unaccountably pleasing about the simplicity of this premise; something enthralling, too, about the purity of attention with which the history of the census is excavated and its consequences elaborated on. In the father’s musings on the nature of his work, Census crisscrosses the thin line between mystery and mysticism, elevating an incomprehensible cultural practice into something approaching an opportunity for an experience of the divine. When dealing with a person to be counted in the census, the father says, “You must jolt the life of the person you face so that the matter at hand can come to light in a lived moment.” He adds:

Your body, your extended hand, the tautness of your face, the turn of your foot — it must all shout: I here and now give you permission to live an examined life, beginning now with this moment in which I ask you a question and you, poor soul, may examine your life in the light that it sheds. This is a part, just one small part, of the grace that the census offers.

But, of course, Census isn’t ultimately about the father and his thoughts on his new profession. It is about the boy in his care, and in a way the father’s involvement in conducting the census amounts to nothing more than a pretext for a dying man to spend as much of his remaining time as possible with his son. In fact, the father eventually casts aside his professional obligations. “You may wonder how it can be”, he says, “that we can travel so quickly when the business of the census ordinarily means that we must go quite literally from house to house. The truth is, we dispensed with that almost immediately.” Instead, he uses the time available to them to derive joy from the joys of the boy, to vicariously experience his son’s unflagging wonder at the world, even when the world does not accommodate the boy and causes of joy seem to elude him.

So who is this boy? What portrait of him, and implicitly of Abram Ball, does the novel paint? If Abram is “there” in Census, not in the boy himself but “in his effect”, what is the nature of the effect?

In general, it’s multifarious. The boy is not always well-received by the people he approaches alongside his father. There is a woman who, the father notes, “start[s] to say something about God cursing certain people” until her husband cuts her off. But then there are others who are more receptive, or who at least keep their discomfort concealed, even when the boy’s inappropriate behaviour demands apologies: “People become fond of him very quickly”, the father says, “and that has always helped”. There is a doctor who takes an interest in the boy, but less on truly sympathetic grounds than as a spur for questions about the construction of identities: “Do you ever wonder… who he thinks he is?” the doctor asks the father. “I have a sense of myself and I’m sure you have a sense of yourself, and in some ways we attempt to obtain from others a recognition of it. … But he does not appear to try very hard to do that. And so I wonder — who does he think he is?” And, in one of the novel’s most stirring moments, there is a woman who recognises in the father a kindred spirit. “My daughter was like your son”, she says:

She is dead now for many years. But we raised her and she lived here with us, and joined with us in all the things that we did. She liked to sew things, although it was not easy for her, and she liked surprising people. She did not like to be surprised, but no one does. I wanted to tell you about her, because I think there are so few people in these later days who care about the kind of person they are. It even happens that no one has them anymore. I can see from the way you are with him that you see — you see what we saw, that they experience the world just as we do, and maybe even, maybe even in a clearer light.

Yet this doesn’t mean that the boy’s effect on others is multivalent. There is a pallid sameness to his encounters. They are, all of them, only momentary, unfolding in a protracted present-continuous timeframe, with no consequences or lingering after-effects when the time comes for the parting of ways.

While there’s something intriguing about this patterning of events up to a point, it eventually becomes a problem for the novel and especially for the boy’s “effect” on the people he meets. It imposes limitations on the significance of the encounters — the father and son proceed to a new town, then they come into contact with people who may or may not respond to the boy in a way worth remarking upon, and finally they proceed to the next town as surely and serenely as if they’d met nobody at all — so that, far from making a lasting impression on others, and far from being shaped by them as they make impressions on him, the boy remains a transient and ephemeral presence, unable to leave a mark on the world or to be marked by it. Insofar as his mere existence in someone else’s field of vision prompts a response from them, it’s true that his presence is registered and his condition is acknowledged. But he doesn’t do anything to draw out any sort of “effect” — positive or negative — that is powerful enough to please or trouble his father as the two of them move on to the next town on their journey. In consequence, the pace of the novel suffers mightily: somewhere around the towns of G and H, it becomes clear that each stage of the voyage will be just one more inconsequential plod towards the final destination of Z, and there’s still more than half the alphabet to trudge through.

The father’s own response to his son is the exception to the general rule, the only response that actually has any lasting value. It isn’t profound enough to offset the deflationary effect of the other responses, but it is eloquently articulated and has some interesting emotional effects on the father. “Ever since he was born”, he says of his son, “our lives, my wife’s, mine, bent around him like a shield”. It is a heavy responsibility to be saddled with, the responsibility to look after “a child who must be cared for permanently”, and the father recalls having heard, in the boy’s early days, expressions of “a common wisdom that he should be left to his own devices, in essence, ignored”. But the father positively relishes his dual role as carer and companion — “we felt lucky to have had him”, he says of himself and his wife, “and lucky to become the ones who were continually with him” — and, ever so subtly, there is a bleeding over of the boy’s stance before a bewildering world into the father’s demeanour as he conducts the census. Following an incident in which he sings a nonsensical song to the boy, the father offers these frank remarks:

My son did not ask me what the song meant. The reason for this is: he doesn’t ask that kind of question. The idea that someone could tell you the meaning of something that is before you — let us assume a thing is before you in its entirety and you do not know its meaning, and so you expect someone to give it to you — this is foreign to him. If there is something completely hidden, of which there is a small part — yes, he might ask. But, looking at a hare or a geode, he would not ask what it means. As well ask what a kaleidoscope means. What does it mean?

The boy seems never to be immobilised by the foreignness of the world, but rather to be enlivened by it, to watch the world unfold before him in a parade of marvels. And the journey isn’t underway for long before the father — sick, weary, nearing the end of his days — takes the boy’s disposition as his own starting point for his bearing towards the world:

It is certainly true that at all times the world is fascinating. At all times all parts of the world are eternally fascinating. There is no legitimate rubric that could be used to choose the doing of one thing over the doing of any other. So when he chooses to simply observe this or that, and, I presume, leap out of his heart into some empathy with the thing observed, whether it is a Ferris wheel or a tortoise, I have never been capable of objecting, and certainly, I have never sought to change what is essentially, to my eyes, a basic resourcefulness that finds at any moment something profound.

More important than the fact that the father notices these features in the boy is that he absorbs them simply by way of watching him. “There is a constitution that some have”, he says, “to which everything foreign is wondrous, and all that is domestic, tiresome”, and those who have this constitution are able to “find in the most familiar things an endless reverie”. “There is a constitution that some have”, the father says, “and I had it”. The implication of his switch to the past tense is that the death of his wife drained him of this constitution. But the implication of his observations of his son — his observations of this constitution in his son — is that the boy can reawaken it in him, can by his nature alone restore to the father what he has lost.

There’s a gentle poignancy to Census which makes the book at once enlivening and yet strangely disappointing. Both its conceptual foundations and the assuredness of its style are the work of a rare creative intellect, but for some reason it doesn’t strive for the more ambitious, more profound things inherent in its premise. This isn’t a criticism meant to dismiss offhand the novel’s poignancy. It’s to wonder why Ball is content to do no more than prolong the poignancy, once it has been evoked, in a way that feels like a plateauing of the aspirations of a novel that has the potential to evoke so many other things. As beautiful and bewitching as it is, Census has been constructed atop a vast reservoir of promise which, beyond a certain point, remains untapped. Perhaps its sense of having been curtailed comes, bluntly, from opportunities overlooked or squandered, but there’s also the possibility that this sense has been created purposefully, that it is a structural expression of the narrator’s inwardness and reserve. Both of those scenarios seem equally plausible to me. I’m genuinely unable to draw a conclusion either way.

I should mention, however, that I’ve arrived at this ambivalent view of Census even though I suspect I’m closer to its base elements than many readers will be. In saying this, I mean to be on guard against the accusation that I’ve responded to the novel as an aesthete when I should be more attuned to its sentimental provocations: the helplessness of the child and the father’s unflagging dedication to his son, even or especially when confronted with the hostilities of others. But I, too, am the father of a child with a disability that affects every aspect of daily life. While my daughter does not have the same cognitive dimensions as Down’s Syndrome, it certainly does erect a wall between her and the world at large, and a large portion of my days — my years — have been spent chipping away at the invisible bricks and mortar around her.

One result of this is that parts of Census read like things I could have written myself. At a certain point, speaking aloud the sentimental substance of the novel, the father thinks of his son alone in the world and feels moved to say this: “People’s ignorance was so sharp then, it is still sharp now, and many of them cannot perform so much as a basic interaction without saying something base and awful, or laughing or outright turning away.” The truth of those words is something I’ve seen with my own eyes, vivid and infuriating, more times than I care now to count. The boy’s life, the father says elsewhere, “is such that he is assured of nothing that continues. He needs a champion.” I’m sure that the feeling behind remarks will resonate with many readers who are also parents, but I’m sure as well that there’s a special sting to it, a frightful urgency, known only to parents of children with unusual and permanent vulnerabilities. For this reason I think I’m keenly sensitive to the sentimental provocations of Census, and yet, it’s true, portions of the novel still managed to leave me cold.

I don’t want to be unfair to the book or mislead its potential readers. When viewed beside most of the other novels that will be published this year, Census is startling and fresh, perhaps even radical. It is a work of uncommon sensitivity, humility, and tenderness that makes a determined departure from the norm. But a novel is always infinitely more than what it appears to be. It represents a complex series of artistic and ethical choices made by its author, and at the same time it bears traces of the choices that could have been made but weren’t, the opportunities it forfeited in the process of seizing others. As it unfolds in a way that illuminates one set of choices, it also casts shadows of the alternative novels that might have been realised if the same base materials had been differently structured or subjected to different styles of representation. Because Ball uses his foreword to make his intentions explicit, because those intentions centre on the “effect” of the boy on other characters, and because those characters respond variously but time and time again in ways of equally muted significance, Census is haunted by the ghosts of its alternative selves more powerfully than most other novels.

Ball’s foreword makes it difficult to immerse oneself in the narrative without wondering, at each stage, whether the “effect” he is achieving is as singular or intense as he intended or as powerful it could possibly be. Each page, each sequence, raises the question of whether greater variations in pace and scene construction and dramatic tension might not have created effects of more subtlety or complexity or reach, or might have somehow given the novel finer textures. Relative to the other paths the novel might have trodden — the other versions of Census that the fundamental terms of this version make possible — the Census that has come into being, while impressive, is also deflated, a little stalled in its development. It is a novel with the delicacy a budding flower that sprouts from a seed and unfolds into the sun, yet somehow finally lacks the strength to bloom.

About Daniel Davis Wood

Daniel Davis Wood is based in Scotland. His début novel, Blood and Bone, won the Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia, and his follow-up, At the Edge of the Solid World, was published to acclaim in 2020. He is also the author of a monograph, Frontier Justice in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Cormac McCarthy, and the novella Unspeakable. He blogs at Infinite Patience and tweets @DanielDavisWood.