Familiarity is a hell of a drug. There are those things, those places, those people, those routines we know so well that we come to believe we rely on them, that we need them in order to exist, rather than the other way around. It’s a kind of magical thinking, familiarity, even if its central premise is so predicated in the banal. But it’s something people seek out: the smooth edges, over the rough; the easy path, over the struggle. We speak in cadences other people will quickly understand, move in patterns at once identifiable, live our lives as if on-script, as if any aberrant moves will send us spiraling into a world we don’t recognize anymore, as if we would never be able to understand the differences, as if that’s a bad thing.
And yet, it is all too frequent that the familiar makes us, if not miserable, at least complacent, often scared, and definitely conservative. The familiar comprises an often-perverse set of rules, and its existence is dependent on our participation in it, our refusal to accept differences. It suffocates. It makes it impossible to see the details of what’s around us, so focused are we on the whole, and how we fit into it. Until something changes, is added or subtracted, bends or warps in such a way to offer a new perspective on that whole, on ourselves.
In Census, his latest novel, Jesse Ball creates a world that plays with the concept of the familiar, bending the rules and warping society’s customs just enough to construct a world that is recognizable yet also disconcerting. We know this place. We know these people. We know these words. And yet there’s something about the way Ball puts it all together that offers a specifically strange version of reality, one whose oddities offer a new kind of freedom to see and feel things in a heightened way, as an antidote to the way familiarity dulls the senses. It’s a liberation of sorts, even if it offers no escape or even refuge from tragedy or cruelty.
But let’s start at the beginning. Or actually, before the beginning. Census is dedicated to Ball’s older brother Abram, who died at the age of 24 in 1998 when Ball was 21. In an introduction to the novel, Ball explains that this book was inspired by Abram, who had Down syndrome: “What is in my heart when I consider [Abram] and his life is something so tremendous, so full of light, that I thought I must write a book that helps people to see what it is like to know and love a Down syndrome boy or girl.” Perhaps this sounds familiar to you. Perhaps you think you know how this book will proceed. Perhaps once you find out that it’s a road trip story that centers around the voyage of a dying elderly father and his disabled son, you think even more that you know what is going to happen. But, as Ball also explains in his introduction, “It is not like what you would expect.”
Rather, while Ball operates within certain narrative constraints—the father and son are traveling from point A to point Z; they are on a census-taking mission that involves visiting people and tattooing them—there is otherwise a wildness, a refusal to stay within known limits, a potential for rapture, even if it’s a quiet one, centered around the love between a father and son, a protector and the protected. What is not in this book is any kind of mawkish sentimentality and a sense that a person with Down syndrome is little more than a vessel for teaching other, “normal” people a lesson about life or love. Instead, Ball offers a chance to reflect on the ways in which familiar language is wholly inadequate in describing those things that are unfamiliar to us, and that by embracing discomfort, or at least its possibility, we might have a better chance of finding and offering compassion and love, and even a sense of grace.
Below, I talk with Ball about Census, the dream of being a traveler, and how to “be graceful in [being] misunderstood.”
At what point did you know that this was a book you wanted to write, one centered around your brother—or, at least, the absence of him?
I think the time that elapsed between when I came up with the idea, that I should write about him, about the Down syndrome character in the book, and the time that I actually wrote it, it might’ve been less than a month. So, it was short in terms of the idea, but I would say the main share of the work had been put in when I was a child. Because—what do they say?—the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts. You know? The time that I spent thinking about my brother and thinking about what my life with him would be like, it was just an enormous amount of time. He was in the hospital from when I was 12 until 21. And I was with him all the time. So, a lot of my childhood just really revolved around him. But the important part of the book really was coming up with the idea, this conception of the way the book could be executed, which was writing about him without having the character be center stage. And so, I don’t think that it would’ve been possible to write the book without that. It would’ve been too defensive of a task.
A lot of people, whether it’s as readers or even in how they approach life, and maybe in both ways, get really scared when things aren’t perfectly explained to them. How do you approach that as a writer?
I have some rules that I try to follow in my life, and one of them is to try to be graceful in allowing myself to be misunderstood. Not just in an artistic sense but in all kinds of senses. You and someone else are walking to the same chair in the DMV and then you swerve away because you’re afraid they’re gonna think that you’re trying to steal their chair. You know, the constant miscommunication and misunderstandings that erupt in our modern life. So, to be graceful and allowing yourself to be misunderstood is one of the things that I try—and fail at. But, in my work, I find that it’s always been very difficult to say even the simplest thing and have it be understood. My agenda, the assumptions, and the basis of what I see when I look at the world are so inherently different from the consensus version in Hollywood and in the books that win the Pulitzer Prize. And the prevailing narrative, I think, is so misbegotten and mistaken that when I present just a very simple thesis, it’s hard for people to understand it because I want to throw out a lot of basic hierarchical dynamics that exist in modern life. I think that they’re unnecessary and that we shouldn’t start with them as assumptions. That’s one of the things that really drew me, within this book, as a mechanism to the depiction of the relationship to a person with Down syndrome.
Of course, people with Down syndrome are not all the same; like anyone else, they’re quite different. But, one of the things is that some of them are not as fluent in the cultural and human scripts of behavior that we all can wear as masks. They make it so that we don’t actually have to interact with each other when we’re interacting with each other, you know? Like, I speak to the bank teller, and there are all these ways that I speak to the bank teller as such that I don’t have to be myself when I’m standing there, or I... maybe I even have someone over at my house for dinner, and I’m sitting there across the table from them, and everyone’s so practiced in being who they’re purporting to be, that no one is affected by the other person. But, because some people... obviously my brother, he was not, insomuch that he was aware that these scripts did exist, he did not know them well enough to use them all the time. So, he would be constantly off-script in how to behave with people. That meant he would meet real people. When he met someone, he would be meeting the real person, not the fake person. But if I met them, I would be meeting the fake person. So I thought that was just fascinating.
The road trip that the father and son are on makes for a perfect basis for them to have as many interactions with as many different types of people as possible. Did you always know it was going to be a road trip that they would embark upon?
I almost never know very much about the book that I’m gonna write when I sit down to write it. I have a basic structure, like, the book will take place over three days. From maybe some kind of geographical thing. But, the substance will be something that arises under the pen, under the fingers that are typing. I think part of that is because of the way in which I tend to write. I write the least I can, which... I write the most of what I feel sure of. Which is the least that I can write. And I put that down. So maybe it’s just the first sentence or the first paragraph. And then I look at it and I don’t think like, Oh, the world that I have in my head about this book is the world that’s gonna go on the page. I look at the page and say, “What is that?” Okay, so I had ideas about it, I had intentions when I put it down, but that’s not important any longer. Now there’s something there, and what is it? And then, looking at it and deciding what it is, the next thing that’s possible just appears. And then I write the next thing down. And I ask myself, Oh, this thing I just wrote down: What is it? That allows me to not have to fear that the world that I created in my head and then tried put down on the page won’t appear because it’s never about the planning of some world. It’s about this simple speech on the page. I didn’t know that it was gonna be a road trip, but then it just ended up that that was a reasonable way to proceed.
It was interesting to have such a defined structure in the sense of literally going from A to Z, but within that structure are so many surreal elements. Just, things that wouldn’t align at all with what we might expect as recognizable. But you had nothing of it in mind when you started writing?
Really nothing. The culture and the cities and the towns and places in my books, even though it may seem to be far-fetched, or not the present, really, it is the present. It’s always the present, it’s just that I refuse to include these corporatized elements. So, simply by removing the corporatized elements, we’re left with this very strange landscape. And I feel that that’s the landscape that, day-to-day, I inhabit. That’s the one I’m trying to move through without touching these poisonous products, this poisonous advertising. It really is just a very rigorous factual account of a day-to-day life.
After finishing it, I just thought, I need to just be completely offline. I had such a profound sense of wanting to escape all of the trappings of what it is to be... participating in society right now.
It’s almost like we should have some kind of Geiger counter that we’re given that ascertains value. So, it’s okay to go to this website if you press a little button that goes [beeping noises] and there’s actual value there. There’s certainly maybe one of the hundreds of things on the internet that are magnificent and amazing. You would, of course, want to go and read this website or something. But, all the rest of it... it’s just so confusing because it’s made to prey on us. Twenty minutes have gone by, and you’ve been clicking through ads about soap and of trucks, in order to get to somebody making some nonsensical video statement, which you weren’t even interested in watching. [laughs]
It’s really fascinating and tragic because we’re aware of it and we can’t... it’s not even that we can’t help it, we just succumb to it in this way.
If you’re a potter, then a lot of your time is spent at the wheel, you use your hands, the wheel is turning, your fingers are in the clay; for writers, we’re not so lucky. You can write a book by hand, but it’s tedious to do so. And in some cases, it’s certainly worthwhile, but that would be more like some artistic performance, being put in a room with a coyote or something. So, I think that the dangers of this computer-borne illness affect writers particularly. It’s pretty tough. Also, if you’re writing, just trying to make a life selling articles, you kind of feel like you need to know what people are thinking and saying, which then leads to this confusing terrain of like, Oh, this is research for me. [laughs]. Which is not... it can be a little too much research.
There is a part in the book wherein you write about how the dream of the traveler is “finding the place you await, does in fact lie in wait for you,” and I thought that was a very beautiful and true thing about what we’re all searching for in our lives, even when that thing that awaits us isn’t necessarily a good thing. There is a freedom that exists for both the father and son in this book, in that the father has this knowledge that what awaits him is his death and the son just doesn’t have any of that. They’re both free from even the fantasy of thinking that there’s some easy paradise that’s ahead of them, and so even if it’s for different reasons, they both have a similar sense of liberation.
I think for me it’s interesting because the position that I was in, writing it, is sort of... is that synthesis. Naturally, because my brother passed away many years ago. All the uncertainty and suffering and—I mean, he was on a ventilator and quadriplegic in this hospital, and there were many, many operations, and quite a lot of suffering and pain that he went through—not only has it happened but now it’s happened long ago. So, I know even more so than looking to the future and being able to guess at what might happen as the father is doing. I know, actually, and I was there. I did not feel it, but I empathized with him as he felt these things, and that battlefield is already been almost erased by my footsteps. But then on the other hand, of course, my brother is still present in me as a force. And I don’t know what my future life will be like, and I try—and have tried for a long time—to be more like him and his outlook. So, it really is a lot of the generative force of the book that comes from that dichotomy and it resolving itself and then failing to be resolved and then resolving itself and failing to be resolved.
That quote that you said, about the traveler, immediately reminded me of the authors that end up always looming up in my heart and appearing on the page. So, for instance, there’s that bit about the dog and the scab, and that’s very clearly something from The Castle, some Kafka-esque thing. So that was just popped up in my face and then brought it back to that. I mean this traveler thing is so clearly [Italo] Calvino. It’s nice to have these... I had no anxiety about influence, I think it’s... nothing is yours anyway. So, it’s just, there’s this panoply of voices that ring out from the space behind your head, and no one of them is yours. They’re all borrowed.
One of the most meaningful parts of creating something, I think, is getting to reflect on all of the other works that you’ve been influenced by. It makes everything feel part of something larger and moving and growing. I think not acknowledging that is a weird sort of shame-based thing. Which, shame is something you deal with in Census, in terms of how we treat differences. We think of disabilities as something to solve. Do you think that this is just teaching people less compassion or responsibility to other people?
I think everyone is lessened by these conceptions that reduce human life to some kind of game with discrete goals. With success or intelligence, or whatnot, you have a child and you think, the best thing for this child would be if it is beautiful and wealthy and intelligent and charismatic, and all these positive qualities. But, in fact, we don’t know what makes a life better or what makes a life worse. It’s not really clear. Even something so simple, like, if a child dies at five, and lives in some way until five, and then somebody lives a life that they’re a business magnate or Steve Jobs or something, it’s not really possible to say that Steve Jobs had a better life than this unnamed child that died in the hospital at five. We just don’t know what makes it better or what makes it worse. That hasn’t been... we behave as if that’s been philosophically solved. But certainly, it was not. I think if I could make a guess what makes life more worthwhile and more valid... If we could measure some kind of unit of vividness, or some, defamiliarization, that a person has a kind of curiosity and then the bravery with which to use it to address the world, with this curiosity. The persistence to do that, year after year. And just a few years of that are certainly superior to many years of just being a robot that eats and shits, which is how a lot of people live. So, I think that looking at people as—even the term “disability” speaks to that, how it’s fully superior to have ability—and, of course, to some degree, it’s true because, from a survival standpoint, a person with Down syndrome is gonna have difficulty surviving in an Ice Age. But the fact that we’re not in an Ice Age, we’re in this time now, where there is actually enough food for everyone in the world, if only we would distribute it properly—we don’t. So, of course, there’s starving people everywhere and inequality, but as we stand, it’s not clear whether a person who is deaf is having an inferior life experience to someone who can hear. That, at least to me, that hasn’t been proven. So to pretend that it has is just an error. So when you base your life on... I’m a fairly scientific person, and I think just basing your life on that data is such a mistake. So the validation of able-bodied people and the demeaning of people with disability is just bad data. It’s just an error.
Census is available for purchase here.