BY MATTHEW HERBERT
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.
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.