The landscape of American author, poet, and artist Jesse Ball’s eighth novel, The Divers’ Game, opens in a dystopian society populated by people who are armed with cartridges that dispense four different kinds of gas that kill or just cause sickness. All the animals and birds are dead; zoos are reserved for wealthy elites and are littered with tattered taxidermy objects.
Its unnamed civilisation has completely forsaken the idea of equality:
“As much as we like to think there can be fairness, it is really a foolish idea, one we ought to have done away with long ago. Instead of fairness there is just order and its consequences.”
This society emphasises adherence to regulations:
“Do the places we inhabit confine us by their very nature? Are we always imprisoned, eternally imprisoned, in body, in place, in community, do even our minds imprison us? What would it be like to be free, even for a second? Is that death? Do we live only on that final moment when we flee our shape?”
Ball’s novel mocks the narrative expectations of his readers. He eschews concise conclusions or explanations. He repeatedly begins a narrative strand and abandons it without finishing it, describing its middle or beginning as if only fragments have survived a much larger text. Yet these fragments are so compelling and satisfying that I don’t feel cheated. He operates with the audacity of a world-class chef who allows us into his kitchen where he is preparing a seven-course French dinner to which we aren’t invited. Yet we are satisfied by the aroma of the meal in our nostrils.
In its first section, this unnamed society begrudgingly open its borders to a flood of refugees as “long as we can tell them apart.” It brands them on their cheeks and ropes them into special slums called quadrants. It intensifies its oppression with a “thumb-taking procedure.”
These others are branded and maimed and corralled like animals.
This first section of the novel introduces two young female protagonists who travel on trains that broadcast through loudspeakers songs to which everybody chants in unison. The two girls have grown up and learned to avoid the “preconceived spaces” that provide no rule of law for the quad people or the full citizens. Their school classmates brag about “how much we like to be distinguished from those who are not our equals.” The girls are excited about a festival called Ogias’ Day, which hasn’t been held in 50 years. On this day, all debts, contracts, marriages, and obligations are contravened, giving the people their first dose of freedom in decades. This society is ominous, macabre, and oppressive where freedom can be dangerous.
The novel’s narrative abruptly shifts away from these two compelling characters to a very young girl named Lessen who has been chosen to be the Infanta of Ogias’ Day, a kind of queen for it. Lessen is scared and overwhelmed, asking for her mother, repeating that she doesn’t understand what she’s supposed to do. During rehearsals, the director reassures her:
“You only have to be yourself, because you are what you are pretending to be.” Another older cast member explains that people are slightly scared of her because “they don’t what you’ll do. No one knows what you might do. That’s what being a queen is.”
We feel for this little girl, nervous for her because there is a substantial whiff of danger surrounding the role into which she’s fallen. Her mother mutters to herself and intensifies the oppressive atmosphere: “But she was wild, too wild. Oh, how could it have happened? They should have hid her at birth.”
Ogias’ Day resembles a renaissance festival crossed with a burning man event:
“There was music, too, some song in the throat of every last singer, an anthem for those without anthems; it was the cry of the punished that there should be more—more punishment—more cruelty—more hate.”
In the section for which the novel is named, the reader’s dread and foreboding are stoked by the intensity with which the government authorities are interrogating a young boy about a missing boy. Young quad children are diving to dangerous depths and for unhealthy lengths of time to swim through a narrow, underwater channel that connects two lakes. A woman decides to commit suicide after she killed a quad who frightened her:
“We are maintained by a violence so complete it is like air. And because of that, I would rather die than anything, rather die than be alive.”
Any Cop?: Jesse Ball is an audaciously confident writer. His prose is crisp, sharp, and elusive. Kafkaesque, Borgesian. After hearing praise for his work from numerous sources over the past few months, I’ve finally experienced his writing. I commiserate with the following perspective offered by a character in The Divers’ Game:
“The world we live in is unreasonable because however marvellous our fantasies become, real things are more marvellous still, and more frightening. Isn’t it all just too terrible even to ponder?”
I’ll be scrounging up more Jesse Ball novels very soon. . . . maybe tomorrow.