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Census Paperback – 3 Jan 2019
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About the Author
Jesse Ball is the award-winning author of over ten books of prose, poetry, drawings and essays. He lives in Chicago.
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“My wife and I always spoke of making a trip together to show our son the country, but it never came. For one reason or another, it never came, and so I felt when my wife passed, when the idea rose in me about the census, I felt finally it was time to take out the Stafford, to drive the roads north. In her death, I felt a sure beginning of my own end – I felt I could certainly not last much longer, and so, as life is vested in variety, so we, my son, myself, we had to prolong what life we had by seeing every last thing we could put our eyes upon.”
Census is the seventh novel by American poet and author, Jesse Ball. In his introduction, he explains the dedication to his older brother, Abram Ball, who had Down syndrome and died, aged twenty-four, in 1998. The surgeon and his son travel north in their (unnamed) country from City A to the town of Z in their Stafford Carriagecar, taking the Census.
In that role, they meet a large number of people, many of whom are welcoming and hospitable, whilst some others are quite the opposite. The surgeon asks his questions and hears many stories, some first-hand, others more removed. Most are kind to his son but: “It is easy for humans to be cruel, and they leap t it. They love to do it. It is an exercise of all their laughable powers.”
The father notes that his son’s behaviour is not always easily explicable, but “I have never sought to change what is essentially to my eyes, a basic resourcefulness that finds at any moment something profound. My wife was of the same opinion, but surely we did suffer for it. The long apologies we would have to give to the legions of helpers. But strangely, no one was ever angry about it. People became fond of him very quickly, and that has always helped.”
A couple with a now-deceased Down syndrome daughter told him: “There is a kind of understanding that can grow in a place, and then everyone, every last person can be a sort of protector for them. This is a thing she can confer on others – a kind of momentary vocation, and that is a real gift… Some people were cruel to her, but here, something grew. It was a fine place for her to live, and when she died, she was missed”
There are no quotation marks for speech, which may annoy some readers, although any speech is usually apparent from the context. Similarly, for almost three quarters of the book, characters are not given names, and are distinguished only by descriptors: my wife, my son, a boy, the man, the doctor, an old man. In a way, it reflects on the anonymity of the census and is partly explained by the father’s musings on our desire to name things.
Where Ball has the father saying “…we felt lucky to have had him, and lucky to become the ones who were continually with him, caring for him” it could not be clearer that this is what he and his family felt for his brother. This is a wonderfully moving tribute to an obviously loved sibling.
“Census” is a very personal book when it comes to Jesse Ball as he has dedicated it to his deceased brother, Abram Ball who had Down Syndrome and he has mentioned it in the prologue, how he decided to write this book and more so write around the syndrome than about it.
The book is about an ill widower, a doctor who takes on the role of a census taker and sets off with his son who has the Down Syndrome to take the census, from towns A to Z.
This is the basic premise. But of course, there is more than what meets the eye. The entire activity and exercise undertaken by the father is layered – of being counted – of life being taken into account while he is nearing his death and in the sense his son’s responsibility being taken on by another person. Then the son becomes a census – a number and perhaps nothing more. “Census” is also wondrously allegorical – given the times in which we are living - of unnamed identities (are they even identities then?), of places and countries that restrict and of how there is so much kindness and heart still present in the world.
“Census” is perhaps one of the most important books of our times, in my opinion. There are so many revelations as you go along the book, that will leave you astounded and wanting more.
Jesse Ball’s novel is narrated by a widower, who find out that he is terminally ill. He leaves his job as a doctor and takes to the road as a census taker, accompanied by his adult son who has Down’s syndrome. This is a novel of love and tenderness with a raw edge, and a pared back stacatto style which drew me in from the first page.
While the subject matter could be taken as sad, Census is never sentimental. Its pages are punctuated by sentences of absolute breath-taking power which knocked my feet from under me. Although it’s relatively short, this wasn’t a quick read for me, simply because the power of the prose required as much time to linger over it and savour certain sections as poetry. In vignettes, the narrator travels across the country, as a sense of something not quite right starts to make itself felt – this is not quite our world as we know it.
What it means to be a census taker in this universe is not what we might expect. More than a recording of names, dates of birth and places of habitation, the narrator and his son witness little slices of the lives of those they meet and record; the result is a book with an overarching story about a dying man and his son but equally filled with tiny lives. Many other stories are drawn in and moved out, often outlined with spare but precise dialogue.
The atmosphere Ball creates is idiosyncratic – it reminds me of absolutely nothing except itself, which I loved. And while this is a book which touchingly draws out the lived experience of loving someone with Down’s syndrome, as the author loved his brother, it is far from a polemic about life with special needs. The message about lives through a different lens is gentler and more long-lasting than that.