In a brief introduction to his new novel Census, author Jesse Ball lays bare the loving relationship he had with his brother, who died when Ball was in his 20s. Abram Ball lived with Down syndrome, and Jesse Ball grew up expecting to care for him into adulthood.
In Census, Ball expresses “a sad and powerful longing for a future that did not come”—meaning a future spent caring for his brother—and outlines his intention to write a book about what their relationship might have been like. “People with Down syndrome are not really understood,” Ball explains. “It is not like what you would expect, and it is not like it is ordinarily portrayed and explained. It is something different.” That’s where you get the first taste of Ball’s elusive manner of writing. It’s both compelling and so ambiguous it makes almost no statement at all.
Census’ main character and narrator is an unnamed widowed doctor who, having just received an unspecified terminal diagnosis, takes his son on a months-long trip through a sequence of towns named for letters: A-Z. The man has been hired as a census taker, yet the census in the book resembles none I’ve heard of, which involves tattooing people with a government-issued tattoo gun. (Cool!)
Census’ focus on a man and son in a dystopian countryside reminds me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but instead of struggling to survive, Ball’s characters drift through their bleak surroudings. The book’s paragraphs flow easily and are wonderful to slowly sip on. There are so many breaks between thoughts that the novel’s physical structure comes to resemble a collection of prose poems.
Throughout, I found myself wondering if I would be looking for Ball’s profound explanation of Down syndrome if I hadn’t read his introduction. Would I even think of the narrator’s son as an adult with Down syndrome? It feels as if Census sidled up to me at a party and awkwardly barked, “I love the census and people with Down syndrome!” But it is, in actuality, a lovely conversationalist—it’s just been given bad introduction advice. I question whether this book says anything weighty about Down syndrome. But I enjoyed all the small metaphors within it, and how enchantingly they string themselves together into the journey of an unnamed man and his unnamed son jotting down names for their made-up census.