In eight novels produced in just over a decade, [Ball] has combined Kafka’s paranoia with Whitman’s earnest American grain to found a fictional kingdom of genial doom and melancholia ... Census, Ball’s new work, [is] his most personal and best to date ... I can think of no higher praise for this novel than to echo what this woman tells the father for traveling with his son, for letting the world experience his gift: 'I think you cannot know the good you do.'”
The novel’s twin themes, the limits of empathy and language, are explored from every angle in living room census interviews that more closely resemble religious confessions than a bureaucratic process ... Though Census reads, at times, like a protracted parable, it eschews tidy lessons. The result is an understated feat, a book that says more than enough simply by saying, 'Look, this is how some people are.'”
Two very different literary impulses collide in Jesse Ball’s new novel: old-fashioned memoir and modernist fable. One might think they were incompatible, given their allegiances to the separate truths of experience and imagination, but it’s a testament to the skill of this talented writer that they end up enhancing each other in all kinds of unexpected, often remarkable ways ... I’m not sure the voice ever won me over entirely, but I found myself able to accept it, or ignore it, as I got absorbed in the story’s larger inventions ... Like any good road novel, Census is at one level a gallery of quickly sketched encounters, and among the book’s pleasures are the characters who open their doors to this itinerant father and son ... You don’t have to have any particular interest in Down’s syndrome to connect with this aspect of the book: it isn’t a polemic about special needs, but a detailed and moving portrayal of a kind of radical innocence, one that brings both the cruelty and the kindness in the world around it into sharp focus. For me, it was the most powerful of the many surprises in this unusual, impressive novel.
Census, his seventh, is more modest than his others, even occasionally a plod, yet it sustains a subtly glowing warmth ... Given its title’s bureaucratic tenor and Ball’s body of work, it’s not surprising that Census is partly funneled through Kafka—though it’s Kafka imported to the American road story ... Ball’s writing has an improvisational rhythm, likely due to his fast process, and the novel is pleasurably airy, if often slack in tension ... Yet combined with the abstractions of Ball’s world, which can diminish specificities of social difference, his census becomes strangely homogeneous. After a while, the parade of predictably odd, lightly absurd encounters grows somewhat tiresome ... If the stories interwoven here are sometimes less than compelling, what holds them together is this son, this brother, whose humble story resists shape, whose thereness thrums quietly throughout.
I struggled to be moved by this book. Only at one point near the end did I come close to some genuine feeling. It is when the father tries to articulate his vision of the train trip his son will take back home to the city known as A after he dies ... What should we expect of a novel? A momentary escape from gray-skied reality? A catalyst for personal realization? A moment of genuine empathy with someone outside ourselves? Census provided none of these possibilities for me. All it offered me were words and a void that I had no luck in filling. The greatest pitfall in allegorical writing is when the distance between the representation and the reality is too great for the connection to be made, and so even Ball’s heartfelt preface and the fourteen photos following the text failed to hold up the novelist’s side of the compact I as a reader had made with him.
You could say this is the story of Census, but Census is a fiction of shattering impact in part because its fabulist tendrils erupt from the author’s own love for a brother: Abram Ball was born with Down syndrome and died, in 1998, after becoming quadriplegic and requiring a ventilator ... Ball’s greatest genius in Census is given over to the supreme humanity that outlasts the ugly things that people do and say. Goodness prevails: It prevails in Ball’s imagination, it outlasts words. Don’t turn to the final pages until you have arrived at this journey’s end. And then stay right there and dwell.
People with Down syndrome are not really understood,' Ball explains [in the novel's introduction]. 'It is not like what you would expect, and it is not like it is ordinarily portrayed and explained. It is something different.' That’s where you get the first taste of Ball’s elusive manner of writing. It’s both compelling and so ambiguous it makes almost no statement at all ... The book’s paragraphs flow easily and are wonderful to slowly sip on. There are so many breaks between thoughts that the novel’s physical structure comes to resemble a collection of prose poems ... I question whether this book says anything weighty about Down syndrome. But I enjoyed all the small metaphors within it, and how enchantingly they string themselves together into the journey of an unnamed man and his unnamed son jotting down names for their made-up census.
With such strange brushstrokes as to render the story almost a parable, American novelist Jesse Ball creates something uniquely memorable and utterly profound ... The work that Ball asks the reader to undertake in filling in the missing information is the wellspring of the book’s transformative power. For having created the boy with Down syndrome yourself — having brought him into being, imaginatively — it does not feel possible to return to a previous state of ignorance, or lack of sympathy, or avoidance.
Census may be his most emotionally affecting book to date ... While the census may sound like an Orwellian device, Ball is more concerned with his characters’ emotional lives than with authoritarian foreboding ... While Ball accomplishes the stated goal of his preface, bringing the son with Down syndrome to life, the census itself leaves a little to be desired. If the narrator aims to hear each citizen’s story, that which is 'most particular, most special,' he never shares enough details to make a lasting impression ... Yet the spare and episodic encounters do take us to some tender places...More than a dystopian tale, Census is a profound and stirring meditation on love, loss and paternity.
Overrepresented as it may be in fiction, the road trip provides an ideal structure for acclaimed novelist Jesse Ball (A Cure for Suicide), a writer of an elegantly poetic bent ... It’s a transcendent, consummately strange sketching of the human condition.
Ball’s assays at Cormac McCarthy-esque plainness and archaic tone, along with his love of parentheticals and backtracking, at times cause syntactic tangles I was helpless to figure out ... The novel’s main philosophical thrust comes through the narrator’s interest in the writing of Gerhard Mutter, a fictional naturalist who wrote obsessively about cormorants. The narrator’s sublime attempt to see the world as his son sees it is paralleled with Mutter’s trying to know the mind of the birds she so admires. Their worlds are inaccessible in that they are not filtered through language, the narrator claims, or at least — in his son’s case — are filtered through an approach to words that differs from what we take for granted ... The task of the census, in its efforts to translate lives into categories and statistics, is thus set in diametric opposition to the knowledge our narrator actually seeks.
Ball’s spare prose centers on the father’s inner monologue and in the process offers a glimpse of a person facing his inevitable end ... Census is a thoughtful, introspective novel that may leave readers contemplating the value of their own relations and inner lives.
With such strange brushstrokes as to render the story almost a parable, American novelist Jesse Ball creates something uniquely memorable and utterly profound ... The work that Ball asks the reader to undertake in filling in the missing information is the wellspring of the book’s transformative power. For having created the boy with Down syndrome yourself — having brought him into being, imaginatively — it does not feel possible to return to a previous state of ignorance, or lack of sympathy, or avoidance ... The strange subjects of clowning and cormorants become ways of asking what it might be like to move through the world in a different, less intellectualised but no less meaningful way.
Written in stark, unembellished prose, the story is permeated by an undeniable sense of loss ... As Ball notes in an opening statement, it’s a 'hollow' story with a lost boy at the center of it, the tale wrapped around him like a protective cloak. An ethereal meditation on love, the duty of a caretaker, and mortality.
His latest mysterious, mesmerizing, and insightful fairy tale is an imaginative and tender tribute to his late brother, who had Down syndrome ... Each strange, touch-and-go encounter on their poignant and demanding journey reveals the contrariness of human nature, especially as people respond to the unusual boy. Ball’s mind-bending, gorgeously well told, and profoundly moving fable celebrates a father’s love for his son, whose quintessence is to inspire people to be their better selves.