Four Novels by Jesse Ball: Let Us Rebel


I’m at the age now where all my doctors are younger than I am. I take it with equanimity.

Less so my novelists.

I’m not sure why this is the case. I’ll never be a novelist, so why should it rankle that the professional memorializers of life are younger than I am? I suppose because a good novel is always a meditation on the meaning of life, and I’ve always thought that the more you have to meditate on the better writer you would be. How can the young be better at looking back on something they have less of than I do? It doesn’t seem fair.

But it happens.

Jesse Ball is only 41. He started collecting the experience of life in 1978, when I was already 12. He has, his book flaps say, already written 14 books, many of them to critical acclaim. Until three weeks ago, I had no idea who he was.

Then I read a review of his latest novel, The Divers’ Game. It suggested a drawing together of two themes that have taken up much of my reflection over the last 30 years–moral imagination and chaos.

At its root, my idea of moral imagination is Kantian. I believe that being able to imagine yourself as someone else, or as occupying different circumstances than your present ones (even circumstances that might so far be novel to the human experience), is crucial for moral deliberation. Lack of moral imagination limits your ability to think or act with empathy.

Sometimes moral imagination hits you smack in the face. When three-year old Aylan Kurdi drowned and washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, I wondered what it was like to be the Turkish border guard who gathered up the boy’s body. How long did it take him to turn off the images he saw, the feeling he felt of the boy’s weight in his arms? Had it struck him that the boy was dressed for an ordinary day of preschool, or possibly vacation? Tragedies and injustices of this depth make acts of moral imagination relatively easy, or at least accessible.

But our apprehension of moral facts is rarely that cut-and-dried. I also believe the world is radically contingent, which means that things go willy-nilly, turning out any which way, the odd scientific or mathematical law not withstanding. I am no plain Kantian. Our lives are underdetermined by our choices, moral or otherwise. The universe in which I am my present self is as plausible as a universe in which I had millions of dollars, or a wasting disease that cut me down in my youth, or a personality unidentifiable with my “actual” one.

This much contingency potentially upsets the idea that we can make coherent moral choices. If there are no fixed paths for being human, or for leading your individual life, how much value can you invest in moral decision-making? The consequences of your choices are always at risk of being overtaken by events.

Genetic mutations happen randomly, changing us in our physical being. The rich and powerful seize control of “democracies” meant to reflect our will. The Lord causeth the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike. That sort of thing. Are we not routinely overpowered by circumstances?

This idea finds its most outlandish expression in Kafka. If you’ve ever wondered what the point of Gregor Samsa waking up one day as a giant beetle in “Metamorphosis” was, it must have had something to do with shock value. Kafka was trying to shock us with the sudden, unnatural occurrence of a process that we consider “natural” because it is happening gradually and insensibly all the time–the changing of the human body from one thing to another. The fact that our bodies have the form they have is, in part, the random outcome of a chaotic interplay of natural processes. Any part of the process could have gone differently–and therefore could go differently in the future.

If our successor species, through some miracle, survives to witness the death of the sun in 5-billion odd years, its members will not resemble us. I repeat: no humans will witness the last sunset. “They” will be something radically different from what we are today. It is extremely doubtful that they will even exhibit a human legacy. We are on that path of metamorphosis right now, changing from one thing over which he had no control, to another, over which we can expect to have just as little control in the end.

The chance that this species will fit the design parameters of our environment is, of course, much, much smaller than the chance that it will die the same death as millions of species before it, of course.

C’est la vie.

The review I read of Jesse Ball three weeks ago was tantalizing because it seemed to draw together these Kantian and Kafkan views of life–the idea that we must, for moral reasons, be able to imagine ourselves and circumstances differently (in order to take others’s perspectives seriously) but that there is no practical limit on how different our selves or our circumstances can be imagined. In other words, to become more moral persons, we must acquire a skill that points ultimately toward moral disorientation.

I ended up reading four of Ball’s novels, all of which explore this interplay of moral imperative and metaphysical chaos.

In The Diver’s Game, Ball asks us to imagine being members of an advanced society that has expressly given up the fiction of human equality. An upper caste subjugates and kills a lower caste. Politics proceeds on the deliberate forgetting of the violence and injustices it took to establish the superiority of the upper caste. And so on.

Divers Game

As a reviewer, there is no way I can put this theme without making it sound too on-the-nose. Is it inspired by the recent decisions of America’s Christian leaders to institutionalize cruelty so that migrants learn to stay away from our borders? It must be. But Ball handles it at greater depth than that. The book is no mere battering of the philistine’s moral outlook. It is an expression of despair at the systematic cruelty we are born into. “We are maintained by a violence so complete, it is like air,” Ball concludes. How can you stop breathing air?

Census is about the outsized power of love in a tragic world. A doctor discovers he has a terminal disease and fears that his grown son, who has Down Syndrome, will have to live on uncared for. He volunteers to spend his last months on the road as a census taker, and takes his son with him. (Ball’s real-life brother, who died at 24, had Down Syndrome.) Father and son travel, Kafka-like, northward through an alphabetized string of villages named only by initials.

Census is an elegiac meditation on the incommensurate power of parental love. Adults bring children into the world–we learn after the fact–to have something large enough to blot out the meaning of our own existence, so that we can say an acceptable goodbye in the end. Ball reminds us that nothing happens on schedule, and we die with things undone, debts unpaid. You can hedge against such randomness, though, by keeping love at the center of your life.

I rarely give direct advice about reading books, but I will make an exception here. If you haven’t read anything by Ball yet, don’t start with How to Set a Fire and Why. As an edgy character study in the precariousness of Millennial life, you might get the impression from Fire that Ball is just an exceptionally good YA writer, ready to break out into grownup novels. Ball’s inhabitation of the teenage heroine, Lucia, is so complete that it sometimes marginalizes the book’s message.

Lucia is a gifted high school student, emotionally scarred by orphanhood. She has a keen enough sense of decency to recognize that it is missing from the very design of the institutions set up to care for her. She seeks to join a secret arson club comprising other disaffected young people who see their plight in anarchist terms only slightly updated from Kropotkin. Lucia writes in a pamphlet:

The world is ludicrous. It is famished. It is greedy and adulterous. It is a wild place we inhabit, surely you agree? Well then, we shall have to try and make some sense of it. . . . Wealth squeezes us. The wealthy squeeze us and squeeze us, until we cannot even help one another, as we would naturally do, as it is in our hearts already to do.

A committed arsonist, Lucia gives a desperate response to this bind we are in. I believe Ball means for us to learn from her example, not that the system must be burned down in reality, but that it deserves no better. Society has been rendered hostile for individual acts of decency.

Of the four novels I read by Ball, Samedi the Deafness was the only one that required any effort to grasp. It is a sort of postmodern detective story, in which you are prepared at any point for a magical device to reveal the whole thing as a dream or illusion.

James Sim witnesses what appears to be a horrific murder in a park one Sunday morning. When he is kidnapped by thugs apparently connected to the murder, he is sure he will be killed too or at least blackmailed. Instead he finds himself kept in a surreal hospital-cum-hotel. The owner, who ordered the murder in the park, is conducting a grand experiment in letting his subjects live out elaborate lies. He also has a plan for the end of the world.

One of the Escher paths out of the maze of Samedi the Deafness leads to the conclusion that the choices people make in the real world are as shabby and deluded as those made by the systematic liars who populate the story. It is an epistemological substrate to Ball’s other critiques of morality: our moral choices are not just indecent in their substance; they issue from a basis of willful delusion. No one, or hardly anyone, is morally serious in Ball’s view.

As bleak as his novels tend to be, they all cast a ray of hope on the hedging power of individual compassion. There is always some way to stay true to the human instinct not to kill or subjugate one’s conspecifics. Our merciful side, though, is the smaller part of our nature, so if we are to stay true to it, we will have to live our lives in rebellion. So be it, then. This is the message I get from Ball’s novels. If decency requires a rebellion against the larger part of our nature, let us rebel.



Comforts of Home


This has been a year of reading books twice. Why? I suppose because they felt good the first time.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the umpteenth time. And I read Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, twice. It is wonderful.

On New Year’s Day of this year I started reading Sue Prideaux’s beautifully crafted I Am Dynamite: A Life of Nietzsche. Now I am reading it again.

Nietzsche is one of the most misunderstood thinkers of all time. People who have never read a thing by him think he is awful because he wrote that God is dead. Then they go on to say, with God out of the way, Nietzsche says we should strive to be supermen, lording it over all the little people who still have faith. Then comes the coup de grace: No wonder Hitler liked Nietzsche. If God is dead and certain people are supermen, of course you end up with supermen machine-gunning people they dislike into pits.

Well, blaming Nietzsche for Nazism is like blaming Lavoisier for causing fires because he discovered the oxygen theory of combustion. You could do it, but you’d be really dumb.

Nietzsche was a conventional, patriotic young man who happened to be very good at Latin and Greek. He could also improvise beautifully on the piano.

Nietzsche’s father and grandfather had both been Lutheran priests, and young Nietzsche intended to follow them into the priesthood. When he was confirmed during high school, Nietzsche experienced a feeling of such intense devotion, he declared to a friend that he was willing to “die for Christ.” His overprotective mother worried that he would take up with a new kind of charismatic Christian making waves in 1860s Germany who went around openly confessing their sins and frankly expounding on their need for forgiveness. They were basically Jesus freaks, if you can imagine that kind of thing in 19th century Germany. The things you read in books, right?

Nietzsche’s break with religion, when it happened, was no mere adolescent rebellion against a naive version of Christian fundamentalism. It grew out of his realization that the Bible was preposterous, and that all the other creation myths, heroic epics, and systems of morals he was learning as a classicist were equally preposterous. They were all stories that humans made up and which insisted on not being read as made up.

When Nietzsche says we are supermen, he is not being arrogant. Quite the opposite. He is asking for a confession of our limits. Humankind, if it is capable of mustering the honesty, must admit it has made up all the cosmologies and codes of law that we think of as being handed down from the sky from God’s hand to ours. “God” was really us all along. It is in that paradoxical sense that we are supermen–we were our own lawgivers. We’ve been writing down our own intuitions for ages and ascribing them to “God.”

With the death of divine authorship comes the duty to think much more carefully. If before you followed a law that required you to be monstrous to other people–massacring them, say, or relegating them to castes of the despicable–now you no longer have divine law as an excuse. Divine law has no objective reality beyond the fears, prejudices, and class interests from which it is conjured.

So grow up, is what Nietzsche says. This is, I think, why so many people dislike him. He is unsettling. And he says plainly that we have grave responsibilities. People don’t like that. They would rather have incense, mystic rites, and the childish doodads of religious tribalism. The purpose of these things is to tell us there is some “mystery” that relieves us of moral responsibility. Well, goodbye to all that, I say. The list of things that strain or compromise our moral responsibility is long enough without adding made-up things to it.

Reading Nietzsche is a way of bucking yourself up.

Looking back at what we have read in certain timespans is, I think, a kind of psychoanalysis. I rarely have a plan of what to read: some unconscious force moves me. So it is instructive to ask: why did I read the books I choose, seemingly at random?

One thing I read twice this year was The Castle, by Kafka. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, I have also read it many times. I find myself using an awkward phrase about The Castle: I call it the most important novel in the world to me. Not the best. I do not call it the best, because Kafka did not manage to finish it, and there are other novels in its class whose authors did manage to finish. So they get the palm. More about them in a moment.

The Castle is a very Nietzschean novel. It is about self-authorship. It is about two facets of self-authorship really.

One: To lead your own life is thoroughly disorienting. This is because there is no script to follow, where certain well-meaning institutions like school or parents probably tried to teach you there was one. In the early modern frame of mind, you might have thought you could follow a religious path or a nationalist path to who you ought to be. Harking back to ancient time, you might declare with all the confidence of Marcus Aurelius, “I rise to do the work of a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for?”

(Walt Whitman thought like this. He thought America overflowed with well-defined opportunities that you could see yourself born to fulfill.)

In The Castle, K arrives in a snowy village at night because he has been summoned to be the official land surveyor. He has the full and clear intention to report for duty. He possesses a letter appointing him to the position. But real life takes another direction for K: even though the whole village is made up of nothing but appurtenances of the bureaucracy that appointed him to his position as land surveyor, no one can trace the authority of this appointment back to its source and tell him how to start his job. There is no job for K to do. The Castle bureaucracy buzzes intensely with self-interrogation, but it cannot discover a motive for bringing K here, a rationale for his existence.

Two: If there is no script shape to one’s life, the sheer force of will takes on new priority. This is also very Nietzschean. The only “action” of The Castle is K’s constant, dogged attempt to claim his role as land surveyor. Each way he turns, there appears to be a faint glimmer of hope that someone in the know can tell him what is really happening behind the scenes. Then that person turns out to be as clueless and powerless as K. The system, powerful as it is, lets everyone down.

If you want to extract a simple moral from The Castle, it is this: We are all K. We all must rely primarily on our own will to create the standards by which we will succeed and then try to succeed according to those standards. This is disorienting, because we expect life to have something like a plan imposed from outside. But it doesn’t.

So The Castle tells you that you have very grave responsibilities and no objective scheme for seeing them through.

Good luck!

I also re-read Underworld by Don Delillo. As I wrote here a few days ago, I consider it the greatest American novel. It is, like Nietzsche’s philosophy, and like Kafka’s story in The Castle, a fable of self-creation. I won’t rehash it here; I would probably just go off on a tangent. It is a novel about the way America re-created itself during the Cold War. It relates how Americans used to be outside and together all the time but now we stay in. Delillo thinks the assassination of JFK was pivotal in this evolution. After the Zapruder film–the headsnap and braincase explosion–we started staying inside and discussing disquieting, horrible things. And the news has been like that ever since.

Why are these the books I come back to? Why do they provide the comforts of home?

book coffee
(Image: Rebloggy)

Are they coordinates in a system? I think maybe they are. Coordinates render a place on a map you can come back to.

In 1850 there was a boy born half-Irish half-Greek on a Greek island. Abandoned by his parents at the age of seven, he went to Ireland, then America. He became a newspaperman in Cincinnati, where his specialty was writing lurid accounts of violent crimes. He married a woman recently emancipated from slavery and had to move to New Orleans because that kind of thing did not go down well in Ohio. The marriage ended. He started writing cookbooks. He also translated obscure French literature.

He moved to Martinique for two years and then Japan. There he married anew, into a samurai family, and he translated 14 books of Japanese folktales. They were so good, they became part of the Japanese school curriculum. The point is, the half-Greek was all over the place. You might not know his name, Lafcadio Hearn, (I certainly didn’t before I read about him in the New Yorker), but what an extraordinary life he led.

Hearn’s whole world consisted of language–reading and writing. You couldn’t say he lacked a home. He eventually became a Japanese citizen. But his real home was the written word through which he was constantly re-creating his identity and environment. Oddly, there is no such thing as getting lost under these circumstances, although from the outside, you might appear as lost as all get-out.

I am no creator of worlds (as Hearns clearly was), but I do know the basic shape of mine. The coordinates that make up its boundary are given in Orwell, Nietzsche, Kafka and Delillo. I suppose I read them over and over for the same reason you can look at a map over and over without losing your sense of fascination. There are multitudes of details inside the boundary–so many you can’t keep them straight. But the framework, if it is stable enough, creates a home.

How Don Delillo Saw Everything Coming


I have written here before about my inadequacy to review Don Delillo’s masterpiece, Underworld. I think it is the greatest American novel there is, but then again, how many American novels have I read–a few hundred?

Plus, every reader is different. No one has the last word on what a great American novel is. Our experience is so fractured. Everyone has their own life.

Maybe Underworld is a farewell to the very idea of the American novel. That could be where its sweet sadness comes from. It is certainly a farewell to the confidence we felt at the end of the so-called American Century, the feeling that we had won the Cold War because we were right, the feeling that everyone else wanted to be like us because why else would they be buying all our products and watching our movies and setting up stock exchanges like ours?

Isn’t that what it was like to be on top of the world at the End of History? Look how neatly the Gulf War went.


Delillo published Underworld in 1998. I haven’t looked into it, but I presume he spent most of the 1990s writing it. Although it opens with a scene from 1951, it is very much a novel of the 1990s. It was written from the perspective of having won the whole 20th century as if it were a decathlon and then some sports writer asks Delillo what it all meant.

Underneath our very public history of the Bomb and Elvis and IBM and MLK and so forth, there was a subterranean history worming through America, which, as it turns out, did not predestine us for limitless prosperity and a more perfect union. At the End of History, Delillo had some kind of intimation that the “human veer” as he called it would pull us back into the vortex of chaos and indeterminacy.

Speaking of predestination, Delillo gives the World Trade Center three cameo appearances in Underworld. He did this for his own, very 1990s reasons, of course. He meant those images as a comment on greed and brutalism and, yes, a kind of national strength. But, uncannily, he also gave the Twin Towers an air of indefinable menace. They stood there in mere outline, the incidental subjects of three brief passages in an 800-page book, just waiting for something to happen.

So this is what I am not saying: I am not saying that Delillo foresaw 9/11. But I am saying this: A good prophet is like a quarterback who reads defenses at a glance and seems to know what they will do in detail–gives the appearance of knowing the intention and trajectory of each of the 11 opposing players even though he doesn’t. His ingenious play calling becomes a kind of prophesy.

Delillo writes about American at the end of Its Century with the same unforced mastery as Joe Montana quarterbacking his team down the field with two minutes to play. He executes with such fluidity that he seems to know the exact details of what will happen in advance. I think this is the kind of thing Delillo does in Underworld.

The Twin Towers are just the starkest, most haunting example of Delillo’s preternatural vision. He also sees the meanings of other things at the close of the century–how latent political urges would once again be summoned by the irrational force of crowds: “Longing on a large scale is what makes history,” he wrote. Delillo saw how even the broad, clearly delineated avenues of liberal democracy would trail off into Escher mazes of unthinking and unknowing.

One thing Delillo clearly foresaw was the particular way in which American capitalism would prove Marx right about the immiseration of the masses. Consider the following passage. It takes place in a blasted urban wasteland. A local junk artist, sensing the opportunity to sell anything, anywhere that is swelling in the rise of the dot-com wave, is about to “go global,” at least so he thinks in his fantasies. He has his crew of junkies and burnouts connect an old TV to a dilapidated generator powered by a boy on a bike. It is his link to a globalizing world. Entrepreneur and CEO, he takes the news in:

On the screen an image flicks and jumps. It is a man’s discoid head, a fellow in a white shirt with a blue collar, or blue shirt with white collar–there is a fairly frequent color shift. He is talking about the big board composite while numbers and letters flow in two bands across the bottom of the screen, a blue band and a white band, and the crew sits watching, and the kid on the bike is bent and pedaling, a furious pumping boy, and the names and prices flow in two different directions with active issues blinking.

My note in the margin says this is an image of pointless human misery propelling the capitalist system forward. In Dickens, the hustling boy would have been exploited for a reason, made to work for an industrialist’s profit, maybe blacking bottles, as Dickens himself did as a child. In Delillo, the boy is just pedaling away, and the “industrialist” is positioning himself to make mad money off nothing. He wants to be like the rich people he sees on TV:

He loves the language of buying and selling and the sight of those clustered sets of letters that represent enormous corporate entities with their jets and stretches and tanker fleets. . . . The boy cranks and strains, bouncing on the seat, but the numbers keep flowing across the screen.

This desire for celebrity riches amplifies what we have mastered in the “services” economy of the developed world–the creation of value from nearly nonexistent inputs (data, wealth management, life coaching) that insists nonetheless on the real suffering of underlaborers far down the supply chain. Delillo’s boy on the bike is fictional; the millions of wage slaves producing our toys, t-shirts and doodads not even worth defining are all too real. Pop into a dollar store and admire their wares.

Say what you will of Marx, but he got the Iron Law of Wages exactly right. The working poor can see lives of dignity just beyond reach, but we make damn sure they cannot have them. We remind them ruefully that there are large, impersonal forces to which we are all beholden, rich and poor alike, that say not everyone can win. Keep trying, though!

Delillo was also right about something huge that we didn’t even have a name for in 1998 but we have a very clever name for today–the datafication of everything. He saw that everything that could be encoded as digital information was fated to be so encoded. Our lives would be enmeshed with ubiquitous, undifferentiated information from now on. And, what’s more, he saw that once the data was all arrayed in a system, it would all be maximally interconnectable.

Derrida may have been exaggerating when he wrote that nothing existed outside the text (i.e. there is no real, unmediated world); he was probably trying to be outrageous. Delillo, on the other hand, invites us (if that is the right word) to see ourselves falling into just such a world.

Underworld closes with what feels like a benediction. But is it a benediction? It is basically Delillo’s admission that, with the datafication of everything, it will be increasingly hard in the future to distinguish between the online and offline worlds. The secret history that Delillo traces through Underworld is the one that lay hidden underground between 1951 and 1998–the nuclear test sites, the missile silos, the secret command bunkers, the basements of ordinary suburban houses. Our new secret history will have no location, no place where a writer can trace it and suss out its revelations. Will this future be human?

A nun dies at the end of Underworld. Instead of being in heaven, Delillo has her in cyberspace, probably because her obituary appears online. This is her situation, and, in a way, the situation of everything:

She is not naked exactly but she is open–exposed to every connection you can make on the world wide web.

There is no space or time out here, or in here, or wherever she is. There are only connections. Everything is connected. All human knowledge gathered and linked, this site leading to that, this fact referenced to that, a keystroke, a mouse-click, a password–world without end, amen.

That was about as close to right as you could be in 1998. One thing Delillo missed or didn’t bother foreseeing was the innocent zeal with which we would datafy ourselves and project our lives into this world without end. Well, Facebook wouldn’t come along until 2004. But Delillo, of course, knew the kinds of things crowds do, how they “bring things to single consciousness,” so I suppose no big deal that he did not forecast the rise of social media. He was right about the underground longings that brought us here. He was right about almost everything.