The Curfew, Jesse Ball’s third and slimmest novel for Vintage, contains within its pages the best sentence the young novelist and poet has yet written: “Is it not on the ground over that very grave that my life proceeds?” It’s a rhetorical question, and the contrast it presents (life and grave) is no accident. Ball is a strange paradox of a writer—his prose is as simple as stage directions but at the same time impenetrable, often because he whittles his sentences to nonsense. At his best, Ball is a virtuoso minimalist, situating only a handful of words poignantly on a page, letting the silence speak for itself; at worst, he is as sterile as the empty white space where the words should be. Ball’s most blatant contradiction presently is the rare flash of beauty in his least fulfilling novel.
Like much of Ball’s work, The Curfew is set in a dystopian controlled by deliberately featureless panoptical powers (the secret police in this new novel are so secretive they do not even wear uniforms; the hegemony is, conveniently for our author, “that efficient”). Throughout, there are few physical details—“I shall introduce this city to you as a city of empty streets,” Ball writes—but strong suggestions of place. The city of “C.,” which is bordered on one side by “the lake,” clearly suggests Chicago, the place the author calls home and where he teaches a class on lying at the Art Institute. This too is no gaffe. Fiction, he hints perennially, is nothing but a privileged form of lying. Case in point: The Curfew, with its strong indeterminacy, is as far from a realist novel as the real Chicago is from C. And yet what Ball strives for is authenticity. “VERACITY IS UNAVOIDABLE,” goes a warning sign posted by the villainous secret police. Ball, at odds with realism even as he strives for it, is his own worst enemy.
The novel is about William, an ex-concert violinist, and his mute daughter Molly, living a quiet life despite the hell surrounding them. We first meet the two as they sleep through a murder happening outside their open window. William’s two great loves were both victim to the onset of despotic reign: his wife went missing long ago, and music is no longer allowed in the city of C. William earns his keep now as an “epitaphorist,” summing up peoples’ lives in a single line of text on a tombstone. It is busy work.
Here we have our first hint at Ball’s wrestling with realism. William is hardly a personality. “He pictured himself as he would have been,” Ball writes by way of describing his protagonist. “Then, he inserted himself into that image, as an actor would.” And yet, that profession—admittedly clever—situates William as a stand-in for Ball, even though (or perhaps because) we know so little of both men. “Epitaphorist” is a kind of self-criticism, and certain pages in the novel resemble nothing more than grave markers, the letters over-sized and ominous, covering the entire page: “AND OH HOW TIME HAS PASSED!”
Clever, yes, but it does not make for a thrilling read. The author’s aversion to detail renders his descriptions of characters inadequate—no better at describing a person’s life than a terse epitaph. (That William is not a man who smiles is, aside from his profession, the only other significant bit of information Ball offers up.) Ball is much better at describing the relationship between William and Molly, which is tender despite The Curfew’s emotionless tone. “They learned sign language together for Molly couldn’t speak. He taught her everything she would need to know in school, and he did this when she was five and six, before she went to school. Therefore, school would have no difficulties for her, and her muteness would not be a problem.” But when he is good, he is good in spite of himself. That compassion is undercut by pure cynicism (“There was no difference between any one day and any other”) and descriptions, for lack of a better term, that do nothing but function as a means of not having to do the work of describing.
Ball is a breed of anti-Flaubertian, a certain class of contemporary novelist that ranges from extreme (Blake Butler’s impenetrable non-novel There Is No Year), to middlebrow (Justin Taylor’s The Gospel of Anarchy, in which hackneyed minor details try to pass for tidy explanations of an entire cultural moment), to subtle (Ball’s own exquisite novel, 2009’s The Way Through Doors). A room is rarely described by way of the objects within it, the customary realist style: the smell of the boxes strewn about the floor, the look of the piano in the corner, the feel of the wood table, all the little signifiers that accomplish little beyond an attempt at representing reality as it appears. Instead, these authors create a simulacrum, one that has more in common with the most opaque works of David Lynch than other non-realist novels. They make us ponder realism through their rejection of it. At the end of The Curfew, for instance, a puppet show re-enacts the plot of the novel, as if to say, “This really happened!” though the show, like Ball’s writing, in no way resembles reality.
What is so frustrating about reading The Curfew is that Ball’s style has worked so well for him in the past. Another volume of the author’s writing, The Village on Horseback: Prose and Verse 2003-2008, out next month from Milkweed Editions, contains his Plimpton Award-winning “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr,” a novella from 2006. He has not succeeded in replicating that short work’s charmingly deadpanned minimalism. After a night of drinking, a group of friends mistakenly injure a man’s wife. The man challenges them to a duel on the local high school’s football field. One by one the friends are picked off, but they cannot stop themselves from facing the man, reckoning the situation with twisted logic: “It’s alright for a person to pick a side, but once he’s on that side he should stay there.” The story seems ripped from some missing chapter of the Bible, and Ball’s simplicity transcends to the level of a parable, with all his latent contradictions harmonizing beautifully.
Ball’s barely-there descriptions, instead of detracting, work to heighten the black humor: “The scene was very dignified,” he writes about the impending doom of the duel (to describe a character’s death he says simply, “He was no longer there”). The characters are so lacking in personality that it contributes to their demise. In other words, the absence of detail actually helps to propel the story forward: “Maybe I’ll shoot him in the leg,” one character ponders of the man who has been killing his friends, “then it will stop.” Mistaking fecklessness for honor, he disregards the countless other ways the situation could be stopped.
And here again is that unavoidable veracity. “It did not seem possible to him that anything that was happening had actually happened or even could actually happen,” the final remaining character concludes at story’s end, anticipating the reader’s own judgments. The sentiment rips us out of the text even as it validates the tale’s sincerity. The punchline uncovers the story as the tragedy it is: These drab characters were aware all along of the absurdity of what was happening to them; they continued on anyway.
In The Curfew, however, the downtrodden people of C. “simply [stay] put in their houses and [wait] for morning.” When William ventures outside at night because an old friend has news of his missing wife, Ball can only intone, in the most pessimistic statement in a novel filled with them, “There wasn’t anything that ties life’s moments together, except life.” Try harder is a phrase that comes to mind in response. When life signifies nothing do we not turn to fiction? Should we not desire more of our novelist? Perhaps not. As Ball himself claims, life is sometimes nothing more than a way of biding time.
Michael Herbert Miller reports on the arts for The New York Observer. He writes the Bookish column for thirteen.org.