The Short Version: An examiner arrives in a small village, where she is to attend to a man (a “claimant”) who has just arrived. The man is disorientated and seems to be learning everything all over again about living. What is this place? Who is this examiner? Why is this man here?
The Review: I discovered Jesse Ball through the Tournament of Books last year, when Silence Once Begun was on the bracket. That strange novel – an outlier, I was quickly told, even in Ball’s odd canon – was deeply intriguing and a rare, particular kind of enjoyable. But I was excited to tackle his other novels, which promised far stranger delights (if that’s what they could be called) – and A Cure for Suicide has me running for his earlier three books.
It might do to classify this novel as a psychological dystopia (a term that I think I’m pulling from another review somewhere). There are the Orwellian oddities of the world that our claimant inhabits: this Process of Villages, what is it? Who runs it? Why does it exist? In fact, these questions are even peppered throughout the novel with no suitable answers – or, well, depending on what we consider “suitable”, anyway. The surreality of the world that our claimant inhabits is enough to feel like something out of speculative fiction and I think the book stands up, on those terms, alongside the works of masters like Margaret Atwood and Ray Bradbury. But Ball is not interested in the machinations of the world or the people who run it and is, instead, interested in the interiority of the mind – one mind, in particular, but really several as an attempt to understand “the mind” as a holistic concept.
As the claimant begins to show signs of progress, signs of becoming if not himself again, at least something approximating a functioning human being. But the psychological thriller angle remains as the reader continues to grow increasingly curious about why he is in this place, who these examiners are, and just what it means to be a part of the Process of Villages. And I have to admit that I was surprised, pleasantly, to receive answers of a sort.
Nearly two-thirds of the way through the book, the formatting changes. For those who’ve read even a single Jesse Ball book, you know what I mean when I refer to Ball’s standard formatting: paragraphs, no indents, often just a few to page and each page sometimes beginning a new moment as opposed to carrying on from the last. But as the backstory is revealed – this backstory, incidentally, being essentially a short story in and of itself contained within the bounds of the novel – we’re treated to a dense and nearly impenetrable wall of text with only some literal lines that separate a given moment from another. There is a claustrophobia, a sense of mental noise about this section, especially when compared to the sparseness and space of what happens in the rest of the novel.
And I can’t help but think that this was, to some extent, Ball’s point – that claustrophobia, that is. The title of the novel is not a metaphor (I don’t think that gives too much away; it’s easy to come to this assumption relatively early on) and there’s something gentle and wonderful about the Process of Villages, even as it feels foreign and a little frightening. But it feels frightening only because of the sense of dystopic dread that hangs over it – when, in reality, that peacefulness is perhaps a consummation devoutly to be wished. Might it not be better to live out your life in a peaceful way, in a way that allows you to forget whatever sadness has tossed you about and instead be a productive member of a society? Even if that “productivity” looks different from what we, in the modern era, consider “productive” – is it better to keep on living?
Camus said that “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide” – and Ball engages directly, throughout the course of the novel, with the philosophical realities of this question. One could even argue that the book makes the case that there might, in fact, be a moral argument against the saving of these people, those who, as the examiners say, “were very sick. You nearly died.” Is it worth giving up the things that make life complex in order to simply prolong life? Is there any moment when you can be said to truly feel as though your life is no longer worth living – whether that means simply changing your life or ending it? The best thing about this novel is that it does not give any answers to this question, even as it presents a world where suicide is “curable”. The question remains, of whether or not it is an acceptable thing for a person to choose.
Aside from the deep philosophical engagement, Ball is also a masterful prose stylist – perhaps owing to his work on the poetry side of the spectrum, which does seem to inform his writing on a line-by-line basis. He’s able to conjure humor, pathos, and (most excitingly for me in this novel) genuine thrills without getting flashy or deviating in really any noticeable way from his standard authorial tone. There is often a breathlessness to one’s experience of reading this novel – and I wish, frankly, that I’d been able to read it in a single sitting, which is how I think it might be best consumed. I read it in fits and starts, on the train or over my morning tea – but I have the sense that the cumulative build-up of the novel might, like a feedback loop, grow to consume the reader if they can sustain the reading experience for long enough. But, then, that might be too much for anyone to handle.
Rating: 5 out of 5. A strange and slightly-creepy novel from one of our most original stylists. A Jesse Ball novel, I’m getting the sense, always feels somewhat the same while being entirely different from any other – that is, his books stand out as a body of work, even as each individual novel stands out from its fellows as well. This one feels, at times, like an Atwoodian thriller while also being a deeply felt psychological exploration of the reality of suicide, in such a way that it (and its author) might’ve fit in quite well with the French existentialists of the 20th Century. A delightful, surprising, and deeply provocative treat.