In 'Curfew,' A Compelling Brain-Teaser Of A Novel

June 27, 2011

Jessa Crispin

Jonathon Shaft
Jesse Ball is an assistant professor at the Art Institute of Chicago and the author of Samedi the Deafness.

William is an "epitaphorist," set with the task of assisting families to create the perfect life summation of their loved ones, to be carved into gravestones. Things get lost in the distillation process. A revolutionary can become the model husband if you cross out all of the bomb throwing. And 92-year-old Paul Sargent Monroe can have "died before his time," as his William-designed gravestone will eventually read. His widow wants his absence to be felt by everyone, and she worries that people passing in the cemetery will simply feel he lived as long as anyone deserves to. With a few simple extractions and careful word choices, a man who lived for nearly a century becomes a youthful spirit cruelly taken from us.

There's a lot of work for the epitaphorist in The Curfew's version of reality — people are always dying or being taken from the ominous police state they have found themselves in. Like William, author Jesse Ball reveals the story mostly by omission. How this world came to be is left off the page. The reader simply knows it's a world of chaos and control. Order is instilled from above — there are curfews and undercover police officers, the banning of music and art, and citizens subjected to arrest or disappearance for simply having the wrong conversations. But in Ball's world, even the gatekeepers are unsafe. Those suspected of being secret police are shot at or thrown off of bridges. There are great hulking absences — a missing wife, a gravestone ordered for a son despite there being no body to bury, a girl whose hearing is missing. Even the book itself has a lot of white space, unsullied by text or image. You have to read Ball sideways, try to fill in some of the blanks by deduction, to figure out what he's going on about.

The Curfew demands to be puzzled over. It's compelling and sly, and it says much with its silences. Ball plays with the idea of what would happen if certain things, like knowledge or music or people, were inexplicably removed, and how those who remained would compensate for those gaps. As an aside, a character muses, "There is a theory that the sun is made up of thousands of suns arranged in a war each against the others. It is a discredited theory, but it has never been disproven." Truth becomes flimsy when facts are being withheld, whether it's the truth about a person's life or basic science.

Ball, a Chicago-based assistant professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, is proving to be an enigmatic writer. He's intensely prolific — still in his 30s, he has upwards of 10 books of poetry and prose in print, and he has stated in interviews that he has a far greater number in drawers, awaiting publication — yet he uses silence expertly. He is an incredibly cerebral writer, but instead of reading like cold thought experiments, his books are warmly peopled and graceful. The Curfew may seem a little strange, but you can trust Ball not to lead you too far astray. The puzzle pieces fit together to reveal another world.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.