Typically, Jesse Ball has a keen penchant for literally leading us in loops, in and out of doors and through buildings and up and down stairs, turning the reader into a steady-cam following a single character through one enormous and complex maze. Ball does this with seeming ease and, for the most part, with entertaining and valuable writing (see his previous novels Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors). Of course the danger in this kind of writing is that the narrative can get so gummy or the book so perpetually interwoven, that the reader is brought to a stop, left standing on the side of a busy street with no crosswalk in sight, confused at where to go next. But just when I was hitting this point in my reading of Ball’s work, The Curfew appeared, and I found myself relaxing back into the former days of Ball’s more poetically inclined work, reminded of how good he is at making emotional leaps. The Curfew didn’t lose me at a single point, didn’t stop me from reading once, and in fact the simplicity of it kept me reading late into the night or when I should have been doing other things – the drive so great that it trumped my daily routines.
Rather than run us through buildings, in and out of narratives, The Curfew simply follows William and his daughter Molly, who live in a totalitarian society, under an unspoken but highly enforced curfew, with no music, no art, and William making every effort to avoid contact with former friends or family members so as not to risk his or Molly’s safety by appearing abnormal or suspicious in a world of constantly disappearing people.
“There is a space in the playing of a virtuoso piece where the violinist must cease to think about the music, must cease thinking of fingerings, even of hands and violins, where the sound itself must be manipulated directly. At such times even to remember that one has hands, that one is playing, is disastrous.
William had stood many times before an audience, playing such pieces, and it was in this way that he sought to control the very passage of his life, deftly and without forethought, yet precisely and with enormous care. Part of it was to allow what was enormous, what was profound, without limiting it.”
The Curfew has every chance of being just one in a series of mid- or post-apocalypse novels, standing in the great line behind The Road and its sycophant cousins, each one wanting to devastate our insides by destroying all that is outside. McCarthy is a master and he does with words what most of us only hope to achieve even in a fractional sense, but so many writers blunder down this same road, knocking on the same burned down houses’ doors, writing the same bloodshed and darkness and smoke. Ball had the chance to do this, but resisted. Instead, the destruction The Curfew renders is quiet and empathetic – not a judgment day of great magnitude but a police-state that steadily creeps in and takes over, undone by citizens only to be recreated in harsher and more perfectly disguised ways, until the police are no longer identifiable from the rest of the population, until they take people off of street corners and make them disappear. The brutality of these silences and the quick battering of everyday people is more apocalypse than the heaviest of carnage or ruin:
“In the street beyond the window, it was very shady and pleasant. An old woman was bleeding, hunched over a bench. Two men were standing fifty feet away, one holding a gun. Some ten feet from the bench, a man was lying underneath the wheel s of a truck, which seemed to have injured him, perhaps irreparably. The driver was kneeling and saying something. He stood up and waved to the two men. The one with the pistol was putting it away. Another, smaller truck arrived for the bodies. The man who had had the pistol, but no longer showed it—he was directing people to go away. People were going away.”
The Curfew avoids the easy tack of superficial violence, replacing it with a father and daughter’s struggle to stay afloat in a city gone mad with muted panic, creating emotional destruction in a narrative where we wish for the fairy tale ending but get the opposite. If you have read Jesse Ball before and loved his layering and his depth, those elements are in The Curfew in all of their radiant glory: William is forced to venture out past curfew, lured by the promise of information about his long-missing wife, leaving Molly with his neighbors, a former puppeteer and his wife, who distract her from the danger of the situation by performing the story of William’s life as play, a masterful tying of many strands into one rope. And if you have read Ball before and were bewildered to the point of exhaustion, of quitting or setting the book down unfinished, do not be afraid of The Curfew – it is a wonderfully agile read that will keep you reading straight through, plying your eyes with delicate poetry and the most artfully quiet violence. This is Jesse Ball’s greatest book, and it does everything that great literature should.