Census by Jesse Ball | Review
Publication: New York, NY : Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 
Genre: Dystopian fiction
Pages: 241 | 4 hours 54 minutes
Formats: Hardcover, eBook, Audiobook
What thoughts wash through a person’s mind as they approach death? What we usually think of and what’s presented in most literary explorations of the end stages of a human life are of course memories, albeit cautiously viewed only through the lens of backward looking. Yet unlike Granny Weatherall and many others, the unnamed main character of Ball’s novel does not seem to be plagued by these all-too-common shackles of regret.
Instead, Ball’s narrator completely embraces the more pleasant-leaning memories of what he, his recently deceased wife, and their son have accomplished as a family unit during their life together. At the same time, the main character makes the very conscious decision to turn his family’s last hoped-for accomplishment into a reality, and this in the shape of a long car trip with himself and his son in the flesh, while they both carry his wife along for the ride in their memories. As a result, the narration artfully traces the characters’ journeys of standing still in the contented contemplation of the past while they simultaneously strive to take one last brave step forward together both in life and in death.
In Census, the narrator is newly diagnosed with an undisclosed terminal illness sometime after the death of his beloved wife. In response to the news of his impending passage off this celestial plane of consciousness, the main character, as mentioned above, decides to spend the remaining weeks of his life taking his son on the very road trip their little family had always longed for. Yes, very much yes, the writing captures well the bittersweetness of the main character and his son (who we know from the author’s introduction has Down syndrome like the author’s own brother) having missed this road trip opportunity while the main character’s spouse was still able to join them in the flesh. However, it is this melancholy that embodies the backward and forward sway of pushing would-be regret toward fulfillment. The book struck me as the subtlest portrayal of time travel in this way. And, this is exactly how the book is able to relate the essence of calm reflection at its core.
To call a road trip where the journeying duo task themselves with the solemn duties of tattooing census marks on various citizens may seem an odd choice at first. But this is where the novel distinguishes itself from the usual verge-of-death stories we often find in literature. For not only is the narrative filled with memories, it also offers a view of the lives being currently lived within that same narrative of the father and son being featured, as well as of the many varied people they meet (and tattoo) along the way.
I loved the other reviews I found of this book. They pointed out Ball’s literary echoing of the writing styles of Kafka, Calvino, and Whitman, each in turn, with which I agree on unrealized-until-now reflection. The landscape being described is vast and unknowable except through the people who populate it in turns with excitement and apprehension at the idea of being “counted” with the unexplained tattoo ritual associated with the census taking task. In the midst of these literarily gorgeous descriptions, Ball straddles memoiristic and fantastically-almost-science-fictional prose. Not a small accomplishment, to be sure.
And then there are the repeated references to the writings of the fictional Mutter and her sweet obsession with cormorants. Ball explains this inclusion as his solution for relating to his readers the philosophical highs and lows of his main character’s emotional states. In an interview with Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, Ball states that “having Mutter allows for emotional peaks of various sorts to be reached by reference,” instead of leaning all the weight of philosophical pondering on the main character.
Lastly, I’d like to talk about the above-mentioned Down syndrome of the main character’s son and Ball’s normalcy-demanding handling of this topic. This, I feel, is too huge a part of the novel to be ignored. How do we respond with adequacy to the categorically “abnormal” when abnormal is really where everyone lives constantly if we are brave enough to admit it? We use, clumsily as they come, the words available . . . but even these efforts so tragically fail, it seems. Ball has the firsthand experience, in his relationship with his now deceased and very much-loved brother, to tackle such a topic, however. He knows enough about the failings of our English language to still convince his book’s prose to give praise to the beauty inherent in an “other’s” perspective of seeing the world. Pulling again from the Powell’s interview, I deeply appreciated Ball explains the following:
“It’s difficult to speak about subjects who do not participate in a substantive way in the creation of the language that you’re going to speak about them in. I had to find a way to write about people like my brother in English, when the language itself is an enemy. That was one of the reasons for writing the book, and one of the problems that I had to navigate in writing it.”
Because the English language, the language in which this book seems to be apolitically written, is the language of the historically oppressive. If you feel this book review is a little tiny bit judgmental then perhaps you’re ready to take another look at what really matters, with a simultaneously backwards and forwards glance.