by Jesse Ball
A review by Shelby Wardlaw
Vintage. 208 pages. $15
Behind the dystopian plot of Jesse Ball’s new book The Curfew lies an in-depth meditation on the purpose and state of the artist. At one point, the protagonist William remembers his violin teacher’s instruction regarding the proper way to play a sonata: “You must be brutal, terrible, but with great sympathy, sympathy for all things, and yet no mercy.” Accordingly, The Curfew does not lack for sadness and difficulty. Yet Ball harbors an artist’s appreciation for his raw material; he chooses words that will evoke and yet not devastate. He is, at times, brutal, but always deeply sympathetic towards his characters. The Curfew is a hushed novel, not overly ambitious, but unrelenting in its demonstration of the power and scope of art.
Structured like a classical sonata, The Curfew is broken up into three movements — exposition, development, and recapitulation. The plot chronicles a single day in the lives of renowned former concert violinist William and his daughter Molly. Molly does not speak; her father is the only one who understands her sign language. Molly’s decision not to speak is never fully explained, an omission indicative of Ball’s writing: his simple prose uses the reader’s imagination to supplement the narrative. Molly could be mute. She could be traumatized by the disappearance of her mother several years earlier. Ball is comfortable letting the reader decide.
The first part of the novel, the exposition of the “sonata,” begins out on the street, where a gunshot has shattered the peace of the early morning. The reader quickly understands that William and Molly live under a repressive regime: civilian life is brutally restricted and all artistic expression has been banned. Plain-clothes policemen roam the streets, arresting and interrogating anyone out after curfew. Ball spends little time detailing the history and nature of the political situation. He is content to have the fact of political repression be the context without limiting his narrative to any one ideology, making the point that repression, no matter the ideal behind it, all looks the same.
The Curfew is a page-turner. It is also a quick read, partly because of Ball’s experimental use of white space. Just as citizens in a repressive political environment rely on what is not said to communicate what should be, so Ball uses the blank spaces between his printed lines to indicate important thoughts, pauses in time, and key hesitations. At some points, the white space is used to set the tone or pace of the day. After the local symphony was disbanded, William began writing epitaphs for a stonemason. As he makes his appointments with families of the deceased, the dialogue with the mourners becomes spaced out on the page: what they have to say is often difficult and William is patient. William’s epitaphs are poetic; he handles death gingerly but without fear.
At other times, the scarcity of words invites the reader to enter the story. After a particularly politically charged appointment, William stands at the top of a stairwell. The words “and stood for one minute, then another” take up the whole page. The reader is forced to pause and instinctively fill in what might be running through William’s head.
In the second part of the novel — the development — William attends a covert revolutionary meeting, leaving Molly to be looked after by their neighbors, the Gibbons. Even in the development section, Ball gives his characters just enough description to make them real, often allowing their mannerisms to do most of the personality building work. Mr. Gibbons, for example, “[speaks] with his hands”, has a “reddish colored” face and “very blue” eyes. William snaps his pencil in half after completing each epitaph. Yet somehow these small details flesh out the characters enough so that we totally believe in their existence; each character is distinct and identifiable. In fact, The Curfew makes other books look downright chatty. Why do other authors spend time and energy on miniscule details when Ball does it better, and with fewer words? At the meeting, William receives information about his wife’s murder. While William attempts the dangerous walk home after curfew, Molly and Mr. Gibbons write and prepare for a puppet show.
The performance of the puppet show fills out this last and most compelling section of the novel. Written by Molly and brought to life by Mr. Gibbons, who was a grand puppet master before the rise of the present regime, the play recapitulates the day’s events, giving us a glimpse of Molly’s perspective. The show blurs the lines between art and reality, often making the reader question what actions are under the control of the puppeteer and what actions occur independently. The effect is a surreal, dark and childlike landscape along the lines of Alice in Wonderland.
Within the device of the puppet show, Ball examines the role of the artist in society. As they look at the different puppets available to them, Mr. Gibbons introduces Molly to a special puppet, the Jester:
“He is aware that the puppet show is going on, and of his place in it. That doesn’t mean that he knows about the puppeteer, not exactly. His information, of course, is not always correct. However, he does know much more than any of the other puppets. Sometimes, why sometimes he can even see the audience.”
The artist sees the strings of motivation behind human movements. His purpose is to the look beyond the immediate surface: to not only see the character of a person but also his context, the limits of his stage, its trappings. More specifically, the Jester is the writer: “He is a teller of stories, but a great liar as well.”
Ball is a beautiful liar and a delicate manipulator. But this is a book about narrative, deception and control; the reader is illuminated, not hoodwinked. I couldn’t help but close the cover on The Curfewfeeling somehow wiser, as if he has gained a sense of life’s stage, its trappings, and maybe an outline of an audience. An insight, in other words, into the purpose of the play, into a larger truth.
Shelby Wardlaw is a resident of Austin, TX. Her book reviews have been published online at The Review Review, H.O.W., BookReporter.com, and on her blog, ReadGood