Census, the eighth novel by Jesse Ball but something like the 16th book and the first to be published in the UK, is without a doubt a strange one. On one level, it’s the story of a father and son, the father dying, the son different in some way, who travel together, the father having taken on the job of census taker, a peculiar role at a peculiar time in a peculiar version of what might be America. Taken as a narrative, it’s a strange, sloping, discursive journey, full of random intersections and much in the way of rumination. But it’s not worth considering until something else is put on the table, the bookend of Census: at the beginning, Ball shares with us that he wanted to write about his brother, Abram Ball, who died in 1998 and had Down syndrome; at the end we see a series of photographs of Abram, photographs that are themselves referred to in the novel (although not referred to as photos of Abram directly), photographs of Abram playing in the snow, taking a bath in the sink, in a raincoat, with a large dog, smiling out at whoever was taking the picture. Ball decides to write about his brother because
“What is in my heart when I consider him and his life is something so tremendous, so full of light, that I thought I must write a book that helps people to see what it is like to know and love a Down syndrome boy or girl.”
He goes on, and this feels like the one thing you should have in your head if you chose to read this book:
“It is not like what you would expect, and it is not like it is ordinarily portrayed and explained. It is something else, different to that.”
Census as a result is “hollow”, Ball tells us, a book with Abram at the centre, Abram being the child and the father possibly representing Ball himself in some way – but that doesn’t really prepare you for what you get. Maybe this, a thought concerning the boy and why he doesn’t ask questions about a song, does:
“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.”
In some respects, Census is naively evasive. As if, were you to ask what Census is about, you would be asking the wrong question. Census is actually the experience of itself. This is a book that, to get the gist of, you need to read – because as well as what is being told – a father and a son, journeying, the father beset by occasional bouts of ill health, and rude people debating the necessity of the census, and people willing to offer up details of themselves, the census being a kind of record of those things that are individual about a person, or rather the census becoming a thing, as the father and son travel, that is a record of what is individual about a person, accompanied by a sense that the father is not quite doing what he should be doing but rather doing what he thinks it is right for him to do – it is about the way it is being told, and the way is as insubstantial as a ghost (I can tell you Census comprises mostly short chapters, and mostly short paragraphs, delivered in an occasionally digressive way, and with the narrative style of, say, Emo Phillips, the US comedian with the chirpy musical voice, but really what value does that have? Census remains curiously out of reach, flitting birdlike from fingers seeking to nail it down). Census is what is being told + the way it is being told “Held together by a common purpose, we did not need to wonder, and could simply feel.”
“in some way tinges everything with the sadness of these inevitable encounters. People’s ignorance was so sharp then, it is still sharp now, and many of them can’t perform so much as a basic interaction without saying something base and awful, or laughing or outright turning away.”
I can imagine, and easily imagine, that there will be people who would not love Census for its strangeness, would possibly take issue with the fact that in some respects it’s an easy book to read (you always know where the characters are, what the characters are doing) whilst at the same time, metaphorically speaking, mixing in ingredients you wouldn’t expect to taste in a more straightforward book (perhaps the best way of saying this is that Census is fable-like). Curiously, the book isn’t always likeable and yet for all that, it’s hopefulness is endearing, its purity shines, so that by the time you read,
“I thought to myself, then, it is possible, the good is possible. It must be.”
you want the good to be possible and you find yourself, Molly Bloom-like, saying yes, ending the book feeling yes, yes, it must be so, the good is possible, maybe if we all cling to it and keep saying it, yes, it can be so. Yes.
Any Cop?: A novel that possibly warrants a re-read, an author who certainly warrants more books released in the UK (if you could get on that Granta) and an experience that is, to say the least, unusual.