Dystopian stories are, in essence, thought experiments. And few come as thoughtful as The Divers' Game ... It isn't the most original premise in dystopian fiction, but Ball clearly isn't trying to reinvent any genre tropes. Rather, he's plumbing the depths of a familiar conceit, attacking it from a fresh angle, and constructing a parable that's jarring in its subtle complexity and profound, horrific revelation ... Ball writes like a man swept up in this inhumane social order, enraptured by its casual barbarism; he pens bloodcurdling hymns and anthems that reinforce the caste system ... as much of a Shirley Jackson-esque premise as it is an exquisite probe of liminal zones and psychogeography between the privileged and the oppressed ... While Ball steers clear of — or compellingly doubles down on — some of the clichés of dystopian fiction, he falls prey to one of the worst: the ungainly infodump ... barrels forward in a cascade of quiet suspense and eerie worldbuilding ... If dystopian stories serve as thought experiments, the best ones also function as heart experiments. And with The Divers' Game, Jesse Ball has unsettlingly accomplished both.
... a carnivalesque novel of historical amnesia and uncanny violence ... glaringly political, but there’s something aloof about Ball’s novel, too, a signature quirk reminiscent of his strangest early work ... There’s a lesson, perhaps, but in Ball’s disjointed narratives and sparse prose, that lesson becomes pleasantly unclear. His is not a language that trivializes violence; it’s a language that exposes it ... a lively, unexpected work of fiction. The pleasure of Jesse Ball’s work comes in his playfulness, his collaboration with the absurd, and the 'cast off' feeling of his prose that’s somehow both minimalist and made for theater. Ball indulges in imperfection, often with a veneer of simplicity that emerges from deep knowledge of folklore, parable form, and childlike desire.
Ball maps the delusions of a society that lacks kindness but compulsively tells itself stories about its virtue. (In this, the resonances between his nameless country and our own seem unavoidable.) ... most of these characters, corroded by complicity, can’t or won’t identify the source of their pain. Here, Ball’s guileless style serves as psychological characterization, conjuring people who long, above all, to remain blameless ... Ball asks whether true innocence can exist in the society he imagines ... Ball shows how a social order that excites destruction at empathy’s expense eventually consumes its own—and I worried, at times, that the book would likewise consume itself in moral outrage. Yet three of the novel’s four parables refuse resolution outright; the language, rich and inscrutable, is both a barrier to and a protest against certainty. One must conduct extracurricular research to uncover what Ball says is the simple aim of his fiction ... The novel’s focus on empathy may open it to charges of sentimentality, but there is little in The Divers’ Game to flatter the hope that people have any interest in treating each other well. Ball, instead, conveys a warm pity, or a mediated grace.
...a disturbing picture of what humans are capable of doing to each other ... What makes The Divers' Game exceptional is the way Ball navigates this horrific world. It would have been easy to follow dystopian tropes, like setting up the quads for a rebellion. But that's not what Ball has in mind. He studies these two groups of people closely, allowing strange cultural practices to develop where human life is worth little. He's like an anthropologist of his own creation ... The Divers' Game is strange and gripping. Ball can be forgiven the sense of fatalism that pervades the work because the world he has created is not unlike our own.
What elevates this work above the usual dystopian dive is Ball’s prose. His unique literary sensibility brings a bleak lyricism to the narrative, a fluidity of form. All of it devoted to creating not just the tragic segregation of this new world, but also the complicated characters that inhabit it ... literary speculation at its finest. This isn’t the first dystopian vision that Ball has constructed, but he’s shown that there’s far more to be mined from this vein than one could ever extract in a single work. This new novel is a perfect illustration of that, combining a descriptive deftness with a thematic confidence – Ball doesn’t feel to spell things out or saddle the reader with unnecessary exposition. The ideas and images he deems important are the ones he places front and center; he simply expects us to follow his lead. And it is a lead well worth following ... Ball’s work is unique, infused with a thoughtful and idiosyncratic style unlike any other writer you’re likely to encounter. That voice echoes loudest in the simplest moments, capturing the irregular details that ground the narrative in a place of verisimilitude despite the esoteric nature of the setting. It’s a world that feels real. And worse, it’s a world that feels somehow plausible. Not likely, really … but plausible. That unsettling undercurrent flows just beneath the story’s surface, lending a sense of pathos and quiet desperation to every person’s journey ... the sort of work that one points to when singing the praises of speculative fiction as 'serious' literature. Through his incredible craftsmanship and narrative sophistication, Jesse Ball is able to access the incredible thematic depths potentiated by these speculative tropes. Beautifully conceived, packed with emotional complexity and challenging detail, this book is another outstanding offering from a unique literary voice.
... affecting and strange ... it seems perhaps because of Ball’s generosity of spirit that he is able to write so well about people with such nastiness in their lives, and to do so even with a certain levity, moving from one perspective to the next and quickly giving each richness. Though it moves through perhaps too many characters for the room afforded by this small book. Powerful individual stories are told which could have been made yet more powerful if allowed to spend more time in one another’s company, becoming a sustained narrative rather than a magpie survey – or census – of a dark fairytale situation ... Ball’s approach has a sort of shock and spite to it, though; a structural brutality that reflects the world he’s made ... can be quite hard to read for all the resonances it carries of real segregated societies. And it is primarily Ball’s thorniness as a writer, his perverse streak tempered by an innocence similar to George Saunders that makes it easier to countenance the creation of them, and keeps them urgent.
Dystopian fiction resonates when we feel the shadow of our own society’s failings creeping coldly off the page. Jesse Ball’s affecting new novel, The Divers’ Game, is uncomfortably familiar ... Ball can be obliquely philosophical, but generally this is blunt stuff presented clearly and poignantly ... should certainly make you question what kind of world we are preparing for the generations to come.
Ball’s vision of America in The Divers’ Game hits close to home, as if reality has been lifted from the headlines and filtered through the fabulist’s own earnest and attentive eye ... Ball doesn’t string a single narrative through The Divers’ Game. Instead, he uses a nameless narrator to dip in and out of the lives of both Pats and Quads, offering artfully clipped excerpts of larger stories to illuminate the rampant and unfathomable violence, the rigid hierarchies within both worlds, and the conflict raging within the few members of the ruling class who retain shreds of empathy in a world where resistance is almost wholly flattened by cruelty ... Like a poet circling an ineffable central truth, Ball keeps readers at bay, coming in slant and offering slivers of life to illustrate this barbaric caste system—and to communicate an essential truth about what such violence does to the hearts and minds of both the oppressors and the oppressed.
Ball, a writer of exceptional and pensive imagination, adds another trenchant fable to his distinctively disquieting oeuvre ... Writing with blood-freezing sparseness, Ball illuminates this calamitously immoral place in loosely linked episodes.
...atmospheric, occasionally mesmerizing ... Some episodes are gripping, while others are marred by philosophizing ... Still, the novel’s depiction of life in this dystopian world is eerie and suffused with symbolic weight.
The elusive and ever evolving Ball (Census, 2018, etc.) returns with a radical new novel ... If they don’t teach Ball’s work in college by now, they should, if only as an example of an author whose books are so different from one another that a reader might not even recognize them as the work of one person save for Ball’s spare prose, eccentric imagination, and pinpoint narrative composition ... readers who appreciate Ball’s keen, melancholic, and often sadly satirical view of human society will likely appreciate this timely assessment.