The Way Through Doors, Jesse Ball. Vintage. 240pp, 13.95.
Once upon a time, there was only one way to write a novel. You thought up your setting, then you peopled it with characters, and you decided what you wanted to happen to all of them. The endeavor was usually completely solitary, and when it was all over, you had a novel.
Only comparatively recently in the novel’s long history did an alternative to this process present itself. Sometime in the mid 20th century a few writers began abandoning the old method; they began disdaining plot, not caring if their characters were consistent or what happened to them, and complaining about the strictures of tradition.
And so, Jesse Ball.
The young author of the new novel The Way Through Doors has a track record when it comes to this sort of self-indulgence. The only reason such a track record doesn’t merit him instant and silent dismissal is that his last novel, Samedi the Deafness, was actually good. True, large parts of it still read like first drafts, whimsies, even outlines, and it could be arrogant. But large parts of it also weren’t arrogant—and that, when combined with Ball’s undeniable if intermittent ear for a memorable phrase (and a heartfelt if erratic penchant for winning sentimentality), was enough to lift it above many of its peers and make it a credibly enjoyable little book.
Once a young writer produces a book like that, some readers (no doubt irrationally) want him to do more.
Careful, then, what you wish for: in The Way Through Doors (whoever titled Samedi the Deafness clearly had the day off), Ball does a little more. A very little more. So little more that if he did any less, he’d be doing nothing more at all. Out of its 2,690 sentences (in a stupefying gesture of egotism, the book’s prose is numbered every ten lines or so, like something out of Homer), something like sixteen show an artistic improvement over Samedi the Deafness. The Way Through Doors is roughly sixteen sentences better than Samedi the Deafness, and it’s through those sixteen sentences that the book lays legitimate claim to our attention.
Here’s the point in a review where the reviewer would helpfully synopsize the book’s plot in order to facilitate the discussion of its execution. But as in the magical realists who so clearly showed Ball the path of his indolence, plot has become a problematic term.
Nevertheless, here goes: a young man named Selah Morse, a ne’er-do-well writer of pamphlets, is summoned by his uncle and given a position in the Seventh Ministry, Department of Municipal Inspection, a desk job his uncle hopes will straighten him out. After he’s been working there several months, Selah happens to witness a pretty young woman, whom he calls Mora, get hit by a car. He rushes her to the hospital, where it transpires she remembers nothing of the accident—or of her entire life. Selah proceeds to create a life for her and tell her all about it, and by that point Ball has created the basic scaffolding of a book, however twee and self-indulgent.
The nominal device of the book—that everything in it (up to a point, sort of) is just stories made up by Selah on the spot and told to a listening Mora—would allow Ball to claim artistic license for any plot or narrative laziness, but that’s mighty damn convenient—either Selah is one crappy storyteller, or Ball needs to devise better tricks.
And if tricks are of no avail, why play them? In The Way Through Doors more than in anything else he’s ever produced, Ball gives a drastically twofold impression: that he knows that so much of what he’s doing is trickery (and therefore empty trickery), and that he might just intend to keep doing it anyway.
But in any case, it’s time to knock it off. Page after page of this is simply too much indulgence to give an author like Ball, whose pussy-footing with such gimmickry is so often balanced, in Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors, by something real, the germ of the genuine. It’s when the two things are dancing cheek-to-cheek in the latter that they’re at their most frustrating. Ball can turn from using words in whatever way first strikes him, revision be damned, his readers’ intelligence be damned, to using them with the care and precision of a writer twice his age, as in this exchange between the young lovers at the book’s end:
—I am going to get some breakfast for us [Selah tells Mora]. I will be back in a minute.
—Then we will meet over there, said Mora. pointing to a place on the beach. Let us agree to say that when you return with our breakfast that you have been gone a month. This month to come will be my secret month, one of the two months that Elia Amblin slept. For even a girl without a memory should have secrets that she knows. She of all people for whom everything is a secret.
—But how will you live for a month? asked Selah.
He felt the hot morning sun on his face, and it was good. He could feel the circumstances all around him easing. And before him, this tricksome, winsome girl.
—A month is not so long when it is morning time, she said.
If his next book only has sixteen more good sentences than The Way Through Doors, Ball’s readers will be justified in simply walking away. Those sixteen additional good sentences in The Way Through Doors have a clear meaning (over and above warranting Ball our critical attention), and that meaning is a message to their author: get a friend who’s an editor. Revise your material. Drop the God-help-us verse-numbering. Cut out the empty trickery. Knock it off. You’ve got work to do, and we want to see it.
Steve Donoghue is a writer living and working in Boston. He is the managing editor for Open Letters Monthly, and he hosts the litblog Stevereads. His work has recently appeared in Historical Novels Review Online and The Columbia Journal of American Studies.
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