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The Curfew (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – June 14, 2011
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“[A] brilliant work of speculative fiction that calls to mind Kafka’s The Trial, Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading and, most prominently, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.” —New City Chicago
“Few authors have the guts or the skill to pull off a book like this.” —Time Out Chicago
“There is a hushed and elegiac quality to this nocturne of a novel. . . . Ball possesses a remarkably mythic sensibility, achieving a spare yet merciful mode that brings Borges, Calvino, and Simic to mind. Solemn beauty, beguiling invention, and unnerving insights into insidious tyranny and terror and depthless sorrow make for a haunting dystopian tale.” —Booklist
“[A] delicately etched nightmare.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Jesse Ball once again manages to deliver a devastating blow with a deceptively small package. In his third novel, father and daughter William and Molly live as happy a life as they can under a shady, authoritarian regime. The horrors are only hinted at in Ball's poetic and economic style, but the love among family shines through it all.” —AM New York
“Written in clipped and brutal prose . . . [the] narrative is buoyed by nuanced characters. . . . Ball’s ideas and heart make this a very compelling read.” —Publisher’s Weekly
About the Author
Jesse Ball is a poet and novelist. His novels include The Way Through Doors (2009) and Samedi the Deafness (2007), which was a finalist for the Believer Book Award. He has published books of poetry and prose, The Village on Horseback (2010), Vera & Linus (2006), March Book (2004). A book of his drawings, Og svo kom nottin, appeared in Iceland in 2006. He won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize in 2008 for The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr. His poetry has appeared in the Best American Poetry series. He is an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and teaches classes on lying, lucid dreaming and general practice.
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The value of Jesse Ball's "The Curfew" lies not in what it sates for readers, but what it frustrates. Like his previous "Samedi the Deafness," Ball sets "The Curfew" in an acid climate of domestic terrorism, but he never really looks that terrorism in the face. His is not a political bent. We don't know why the citizens in the city of C have a curfew. or what time it starts, or even if it is government-enforced. Only one thing is certain; someone enforces that curfew, whether it's the police or frightened citizens or some other entity, and if you're out at night, you're likely to forfeit your life.
Eight year-old Molly's father has just ventured out into the night and left her in danger of becoming an orphan by morning. She stays with her neighbors, who help her put on a puppet show to occupy her through his absence. The puppet show becomes a nesting-doll story within the larger account of Molly and her father, but unlike how these box-within-a-box stories usually go, when the puppet show ends, the entire novel ends. Ball doesn't give his protagonists any space to close the novel's circuits.
Therein lies the frustration Ball offers readers in "The Curfew", and also the story's strength. Our questions and speculation are all we have left by the final page, and they flood out of the book at large. Eventually, Ball's refusal to give a more satisfying end for the protagonists draws us back to the beginning of the novel. The puppet epic, which started off as a sub-file in the larger folder of the novel, actually overtakes it, and the two stories shift from their initial hierarchical relationship to being like two snakes eating one another's tails.
Bottom line; if you liked reading the other novels of Jesse Ball, you will enjoy reading "The Curfew", although it may not be your favorite of his books so far. This author certainly has his own voice. His language remains stark, his ability to describe the uncanny in a handful of words remains tantalizing. It's a book that should be decanted, to be sure. It reads green at first. You'll want to read it a couple of times to let the words reach their full potential for your ears. You're likely to come away wishing for another five or ten pages at first, but the more "The Curfew" sinks in, the more Ball's ending will seem inevitable, even hopeful.
The Curfew was short and lovely but maintained throughout it a sense of sadness and paranoia.
It was certainly an enjoyable read, not because of the sense of sadness and paranoia alone. There is a sense of wonder throughout as well.
I wish, especially because this was so short, that it had been better developed. The groundwork for it is great and I like that it's dreamlike, but some of the characters and the scene are a little spare.
The puppet scene at the end is remarkable.
Jesse Ball's third novel, "The Curfew," is not as ambitious, experimental, or beholden to metafictional devices as its predecessors. The new book is more accessible. Shorter too: Samedi the Deafness (Vintage Contemporaries) contains 279 pages of text; The Way Through Doors (Vintage Contemporaries), 228 pages; while the "The Curfew" flows fast at 193 pages. "Samedi" offered readers a hallucinatory cat-and-mouse game, and TWTD presented a whirling dervish of endless tales. A few readers found those books wearying. In contrast, "The Curfew" has at its heart an elemental story of protective love between a father and his eight-year-old daughter. You are likely to be genuinely moved.
That's not to say the author has jettisoned his signature interests. The things Ball does well in all his fiction he continues to do in "The Curfew." He gives readers permission to pay attention. He knows how to conjure up off-kilter and perilous environments (here, a military coup has reduced an American city to a condition of pervasive terror). As before, he relies less on the traditional moorings of the novel and more on his own bizarre and generous wit to propel the story. As usual, he trusts that the reader's own imagination similarly will rise to the occasion. He trusts in silence. He knows how to exploit the design of words on a page -- how the judicious use of empty space, insertions, and irruptions of very large type, can positively serve the story. He has a command of rhythm, which is not a surprise, as Ball is a poet too. His prose, though not at first appearing lyrical, smoothly taps into folk and primitive modes (what we hear in fairy tales, for example) and thereby becomes beautiful.
The reader of "The Curfew" will come upon many a grace note, some bits of wisdom, a little humor: "Magic is either a poverty-stricken necessity or a wealthy fantasy." "She felt as many well-brought-up people do that her life is a collection, that she is always collecting." "The effect of irrational beliefs on your art is invaluable. You must shepherd and protect them." "There's nothing like the embarrassment of cats."
In the final third of the novel a puppet play is staged. I was reminded of Guillermo del Toro's film, Pan's Labyrinth (2006). In both this novel and that movie we are bound to the fate of a bright and sensitive young girl. She has been left to her own devices (one parent lost, the other distant) and now must deal with an uncertain future. In both tales the girl seizes the trappings of fantasy as her best defense against terror and real human misery. Del Toro has told interviewers that elements of his film derive from his childhood experiences with "lucid dreaming." Jesse Ball also practices lucid dreaming (in fact, he teaches a course on the subject at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). If you're a new reader of Ball, one predictor of your potential enjoyment of "The Curfew" is whether you were enchanted and ultimately moved by "Pan's Labyrinth."
If you've read and liked Ball's other works of fiction, and if you trust where he's going, then I think you'll want to experience how he's developing in this new -- and perhaps transitional -- work.