The Curfew by Jesse Ball

It’s crazy to realize that I read Jesse Ball’s debut novel Samedi the Deafness a year ago. I remember reading it and being infected by his style. Finished it in three days (only that long because I read it during the work week), and on finishing it immediately wanted to go and write my own novel in the same style, and read the rest of his work one after the other.

Neither of those things happened. Not even slightly. I wrote no novels, and a year later I only just now read my second book by him – his third, The Curfew. Why did this happen? All I can say is that life never fails to get in the way of plans. Over the course of the year it took me to finally crack another book of his, Jesse Ball has been on my mind frequently. Originally I was going to read his second novel, The Way Through Doors, then I was going to jump ahead and read the book that seems to be considered his masterpiece, A Cure For Suicide. I even bought a copy of two Paris Review issues featuring short fiction of his, which reminds me that I did read his story “Archon LLC,” which I remember being short, fascinating, and very Kafkaesque. I didn’t ever read  “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr” and I have no clue why not.

The credit for me finally returning to Ball must go to a rather strange source: I became a Wikipedia editor. I have used Wikipedia compulsively for a decade, and have been tempted for years to start creating pages for books and films that lack them, and adding to the many pages that look thrown together and abandoned. A for the past week I have been finally doing both of those things. And as editing practice I created Wikipedia pages for both Samedi the Deafness and The Curfew. Why did I choose The Curfew as the second Ball page to create? I’m not sure, maybe just because it’s the book of his on my shelves that I’ve found myself noticing the most, with its strikingly artistic yellow cover. And it was while looking up reviews of The Curfew, which were mostly positive but with one outright pan, that I decided to read it next. That and the fact that it’s only 200 pages.

Now, after all that needless backstory (my specialty), what were my thoughts on The Curfew? I liked it. It didn’t impress anywhere near as much as Samedi did, partly because his experimental and minimalist style was familiar to me, and partly because it felt like an extended short story. At 200 pages I still finished it in a single day, Ball’s style making the pages go by quickly. Also, while Samedi wasn’t much longer in terms of pages, the plot was far more intricate, many more characters, and lots of plot twists. The Curfew was extremely contained, made up of a handful of set pieces and mostly limited to the protagonist and his daughter.

The story is set in what we assume to be a dystopian near future. But it also feels like it could be a parallel to Berlin or Prague in the midst of World War II. The city where the entirety of the book takes place being consumed by fear and casual violence. The title refers to the unofficial curfew where everyone stays inside after 10pm. Ball is gifted at creating ominous atmosphere in concise and poetic language. However, the plot here doesn’t really satisfy the interest his language inspires: most of the characters are mere peripheral figures, appearing and disappearing over the course of his chapters that rarely run for longer than four pages. The protagonist, William, a former violinist who now makes a living as a epigraphist for the many dead and expecting-to-be-dead-soon within the city, and his deaf young daughter Molly, are touching characters. They use riddles and puzzles to find solace in a harsh and unrelenting world.

The bulk of the story takes place over a single night as William pursues a vague lead into the mysterious death of his wife, Molly’s mother. He is kept out after curfew and must travel across the city without being caught. Meanwhile, Molly is being watched by two kindly elderly neighbors, and to pass the night she puts on a puppet show with the man who was a puppeteer before the city descended into chaos. Molly writes the show, and it takes the form of the story of her father and mother’s love tale from her perspective. It ends on a devastatingly mournful note as Molly is forced to confront the reality of her future while clinging to the love for beauty her father gave her.

As touching and well-executed as the climax is, it still raises the question: did the story need to be so contained? We are left with only fragments of William and his wife’s story, an even vaguer impression of the realities of the world that they inhabit. By shifting so fully into Molly’s perspective for the last third of the book, Ball makes much of the preceding narrative feel inconsequential.

Nonetheless, the beauty of Ball’s language and his commitment to finding the humanity in a world that so often tries to strip it from us makes me look forward to what I will read of his next. And this time it won’t take a year.

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