The origins of the shadowy totalitarian forces lurking around many corners of Jesse Ball’s The Curfew are left purposefully vague. The novel is probably set in Chicago, but it doesn’t matter. William Drysdale, the book’s protagonist, has a daughter, Molly, who doesn’t speak. His wife disappeared some years ago, after some revolution began. No one inquires as to why Molly doesn’t speak. It doesn’t matter. William doesn’t know why his wife was (presumably) murdered. It should matter, of course, but even if it does, William can’t let it. The Curfew’s unidentified, rarely present narrator introduces the futility of truth or emotion in these circumstances this way: “I shall introduce this city and its occupants as a series of objects whose relationship cannot be told with any certainty.”
That is: When there is no art, and no debate is tolerated, and when any passerby may be secret police (and you, therefore, to any passerby, may be secret police), notions of truth or trust are slippery. For William, what solace seems to exist comes from accepting the circumstances of life in a police state: He minds his own business and plays word games with his daughter.
The Curfew manages to be a pretty original leftfield entry in the canon of dystopian literature because it doesn’t simply present the resigned apathy of a common citizen as a given. Ball spends half of his short novel portraying it, rationalizing it, and rephrasing it, before nudging William into plot machinations familiar to anyone who’s read 1984 or seen WALL-E.
Appropriately enough for his Zen approach to a dismaying life, William—once a great violinist—makes his living as an epitaphorist, visiting the homes of the bereaved (or, in some cases, the soon-to-be-bereaved) and gently revising messages for tombstones. (In doing this, Ball must suggest, we revise lives as well.) At other times, he turns daily habits like eating soup into meticulous little games: “He had measured it out so that when he had the final taste of soup, it would be accompanied by the last bite of bread. However, the spoon’s shallowness made the whole proposition laborious in the extreme.”
Ball’s prose sustains this curious tone—mundane yet meticulous yet also slightly playful—through events both familiar and frightening, as when William eyes a beautiful woman who turns out to be horribly disfigured, or observes the aftermath of a murder without engaging with the scene. As incidents like these escalate in frequency, William is approached by a friend from older, better times who encourages him to meet fellow members of a revolution whose lack of organization is its primary strength. He violates the curfew that is not decreed, merely assumed, and at this meeting is forced to more fully acknowledge the pleasures of his past as a musician and the weight of his wife’s absence.
In the novel’s third and final section, Ball shifts his focus to Molly, who constructs an ingenious means of vanquishing her silence, and gives words and actions to the vast empty spaces on the short pages of The Curfew. It’s a sequence of disarming emotional force, with the initially challenging but ultimately convincing premise that reality cannot exist without the imagination. Incidentally, it’s also a beautiful rebuke to the misconception that Ball, admired for his craft and prolific output, is something of a cold and distanced author. His words may feel unusually calculated, but look closely and every phrase carries a generous meaning. Maybe the moral here is that words really matter, if certainly not always as they seem to at first.
Jesse Ball’s The Curfew was released on June 14 by Vintage Books. To purchase it, click here.