‘Letters Collapse: A Review of Jesse Ball’s “Census”’ by Jennifer Down

Text Publishing

At the start of Jesse Ball’s Census there is a brief foreword. In characteristically spare sentences, Ball writes:

My brother Abram Ball died in 1998. He was twenty-four years old and had Down syndrome. At the time of his death he had been on a ventilator for years, been quadriplegic for years, had had dozens of operations. His misfortune was complicated, yet his magnificent and beautiful nature never flagged.

As a child, Ball imagined a future in which he and Abram were always together; even worried about finding a partner who would be willing to live with the two of them. He would be his brother’s caretaker. Recently, he decided he wanted to write about “what it is like to know and love a Down syndrome boy or girl”.

Both the distance of time and the intimacy of a sibling relationship made it difficult to write about his brother; so Ball decided to recast their relationship as that of ageing father and son. A caregiving role not unlike the one he’d imagined for himself as a child. And with this, he set out to create a “hollow” book, writing not about, but around his brother: “He would be there in his effect.”

Consider the semantic difference between the words caretaker and caregiver, typically used interchangeably. Ball prefers the former in his introduction. I tend toward the latter, though only, I suspect, because it’s more common in Australian English. If I were a non-native speaker of English, I could imagine myself confusing the two words, or assuming them to be antonyms.

To take care of: a phrasal verb that carries the similar but distinct meaning of deal with or see to. One might take care of a plant in another’s absence, or take care of a child for an afternoon. Equally, one might take care of a problem; that is, eliminate or rectify it.

To give care is not a common phrase, except in the negative construction; as in, “They didn’t give a care”.

Does it matter that the novel’s central conceit (the objective of its narrator; its title) is never fully explained? I don’t think so. The census is a plot device. We are never sure of its purpose, nor the murky bureaucratic entity responsible for its administration. But this ceases to matter.

In the opening pages, the unnamed narrator – an ageing surgeon and widower – learns he has a terminal illness. He accepts his diagnosis with apparent equanimity. Having always wanted to “take to the road”, he decides to become a census-taker, a position that will permit him to travel the length of the country through towns denoted only A to Z accompanied by his son. He reasons that they will enjoy a final season together, and when at last they reach Z, he will be approaching the end of his life, at which time he will put his son on a train back to A. There, per a prearranged agreement, he will be met by a neighbour and friend, who will look after him.

Episodic and fragmented, as we have come to expect from Ball’s previous works, the narrative is divided according to each of the cities and towns visited over the course of the census-taking exercise; which is to say by the letters of the alphabet.

The census is merely a reason for father and son to get from A to Z, in both the literal and figurative sense. It does not seem to resemble the data collection familiar to us, concerned with demographic statistics. In this world, the census taker (caretaker, father) stops at a house, or a business, where he conducts a questionnaire and tattoos a mark on the participant’s rib. But it is not long before he decides to eschew this approach, instead developing a “New Method of the Census”, whereby he arrives in a town and attempts to detect what is worthy of note.

This is a story of encounters: much of the novel involves father and son speaking with strangers, being hosted or turned away; being met with kindness, cruelty, compassion, disinterest, hostility. They speak with a toll operator, a puzzle-maker, a comic writer and her sister (reminiscent of Grey Gardens’ Big and Little Edies). They visit a rope factory where workers’ conditions are so bleak and dangerous that a doctor is employed on site full-time; a police officer, his son and his son’s doll Henry, who is also counted in the census; a roadside diner where the waitress cheerfully divulges her failed career as an actress and her gambling addiction.

From time to time, though, the narrative feels freighted with moralism. Each of the encounters with strangers functions as a small fable, a beam supporting the architecture of the parable as a whole. And about a third of the way into the book, this begins to sag a little.

Given the voice tends toward the aphoristic, the cumulative effect of these meetings, and their moral implications – whether suggested, or explicitly teased out by the narrator, often in exhausting detail – begin to weigh heavy. I get it! I wanted to yell, more than once.

It is true that we can all afford to be kinder. It is also true that we ought to be reminded of this, particularly in the current political moment. But a fable loses its potency when it hammers the reader with its message over and over, and midway through, I had the creeping feeling that Census may have been more compelling if condensed. And yet, after the census taker’s approach to his job changes, so too does the story. The tempo increases. The landscapes become less familiar. The narrator is weaker, and further from home.

Hardly two pages long, the foreword remains like a film over one’s eyes for the duration of the book. It’s a curtain as the reader passes from reality into the ethereal world of Census, a spectre that trails the car from the city of A, through the industrial landscape of factories and fields of the mid-alphabet, to the wilderness of Z. This is a parable, and also a memory.

It is quite some time before we learn that in making the transition from physician to census taker, the father has relinquished all right to legal protection, a kind of homo sacer. In the world of the novel, “anyone may injure, attack, kill, harm a census taker and there is no legal recourse”.

Is it a coincidence that the phrases ‘caretaker’ and ‘census taker’ bear some similarity? I doubt it. Perhaps Ball is gesturing to the vulnerability of both recipient and provider of care. To exist as a disabled person is, all too often, to live at the margins of society, enduring systemic discrimination. The primary caregiver of such a person does not face the same oppression and cruelty, but they, too, may be othered. Any frailty of relationships, financial security or health imperils not only themselves, but the person for whom they care.

Just like Ball, I, too, find myself writing around the narrator’s son; the object of the phrase care for. The son’s disability, like so much else in the book, is unnamed. If not for the autobiographical note on Ball’s brother, and the sweetly grainy black-and-white family photographs that provide a coda to the novel, I’m not sure I would have identified him as having Down’s syndrome.

He is skilfully rendered; observed through the eyes of his father, who is deeply attuned to his son’s moods and tendencies, and describes them with parental pride:

My son has gotten lost on many occasions […] When he is found it is clear that he was, if anything, working adamantly to not be found, but in an entirely passive way. By that I mean, he joins the scenery of the place, delighted to learn the things he can learn there […] I have never sought to change what is essentially, to my eyes, a basic resourcefulness that finds at any moment something profound.

There is nothing condescending in how father describes son. It is joyful, honest, funny, smart. Again, I returned to the foreword, and considered how magnificently Ball celebrates his brother’s memory.

Kindness is not as rare as one might expect from a book like this. Certainly, there’s a pervasive nihilism to much of Ball’s work, and Census is no exception.

Father and son are met by outright aggression: when they disrupt the delicate domestic balance between a wife and her husband, who, it is suggested, suffers some kind of unnamed psychosis, or dementia, perhaps.

Casual brutality: when the toll-bridge operator suggests it is “funny” that the man’s wife, a famous clown, gave birth to a son “like that”.

But the moments of compassion are like sun flares. For instance, when father and son spend a few nights in the house of an elderly couple. They, too, had a child with Down’s syndrome, as the woman explains:

I want to tell you something, she said. My daughter was like your son. She is dead now for many years. But we raised her and she lived here with us, and joined with us in all the things that we did. She liked to sew things, although it was not easy for her, and she liked surprising people. She did not like to be surprised, but no one does. I wanted to tell you about her, because I think there are so few people in these later days who care about the kind of person they are. It even happens that no one has them anymore. I can see from the way you are with him that you see – you see what we saw, that they experience the world as we do, and maybe even, maybe even in a clearer light.

The father realises the census is an ineffective method for documenting and describing the citizens of a country. He recognises, too, that his son resists easy categorisation. In making the trip east to Z, sleeping side-by-side, often in the back of the car, they honour each other’s patience and love.

Long before embarking on his road trip, the census taker had intended to make a journey with his wife, but it never eventuated: “Although in a sense my son was the best possible reason to take to the road, he also prevented this taking to the road.” With his terminal diagnosis comes a new sense of urgency and purpose. Implicit in his abrupt decision to drive the length of the country with his son is the idea that if he does not do it, no one will. Although the census taker does not appear worried about his son’s future welfare, given the arrangement with his kindly neighbour, he understands that no one will love his son in the same way as he does, as his wife did. Ensuring someone is adequately fed and clothed and bathed and housed, Ball seems to suggest, is one thing. Showing them the world is quite another.

Memory swims in and out of the narrative. Rather than being digressive, however, it back-fills much of the father’s story – particularly detail about his late wife, a renowned performer described as a “clown”, but whose physical theatre seems more akin to mime or performance art – to furnish a complex picture of a family. The census taker recalls their courtship, their early marriage, the birth of their son, with no particular sense of nostalgia. These memories are fragmented, like the broader narrative, offering an impressionistic view of life.

Over the course of the book, the father’s condition worsens, and he is increasingly reliant on the care of strangers. As father and son begin to near their ultimate destination, they decide not to stop in the towns S, T, U, V, W, X, or Y, driving straight on to Z.

One Sunshine Coast-based website for mental health resources draws a distinction between the phrases caretaker and caregiver: “A caretaker puts the needs of others ahead of their own wellbeing and feels the need to ‘fix’ the person they care for. A caregiver takes care of themselves as well as the person they care for .” The latter, it is said, is the healthier option of the two.

Perhaps these differences are smoothed out with the synonym carer. An abbreviated, catch-all term with softened edges.

Quotidian meetings take on an earnestness, and the road trip a sense of the elegiac, when the final, implacable destination is death. It is both strange and a testament to Ball’s skill that despite the fact that once marked, we never meet the census participants again; and yet they haunt the pages to come. These characters feel both anonymous and fully realised. One has the impression they have merely been reanimated in the presence of our narrator and his son, and will return to stillness once we turn the page. I mean this not as a criticism: indeed, it seems entirely plausible and consistent with the logic of this peculiar book. Like Ball’s other works – Silence Once Begun and A Cure for Suicide spring to mind, though the more recent How to Set a Fire and Why also fits – there is an otherworldly, dreamlike mood to Census.

Rushing on through sparsely populated towns, abandoned villages, places pockmarked with factories, father and son incubated in their car. Outside the world speeds by. Letters collapse. This pace carries poignancy: the reader is only too aware of the finality of Z.

Statistics are only useful to a point. There is so much a census cannot describe or measure.

Z, when we reach it, is a “dismal little town, a flyspeck”. It is here that the father farewells his son, giving him over to the care of others. The final pages are both joyful and heartbreaking. Father entrusts the welfare of son to strangers. And Ball, it could be said, entrusts the reader to move through the world with more kindness than before.

Jennifer Down is a writer, editor and translator, and the author of Our Magic Hour and Pulse Points: Stories, published by Text.

i http://mhr4c.com.au/coping-strategies/caregiver-vs-caretaker/