The Short Version: A young pamphleteer/government inspector in a rather curious version of New York sees a young woman hit by a cab. He takes her to a hospital where she’s diagnosed with severe amnesia and finds himself charged with taking care of her – primarily, keeping her awake through the night. He does so by telling her stories, stories that overlap and intertwine and that hopefully will reveal her lost identity by the time the sun comes up…
The Review: I decided, this time, that I would in fact attempt to read an entire Jesse Ball novel in a single sitting – or, at least, a single day. I was successful on the latter end but frustrated in the former, as I had to go attend a play and do laundry. While those two things were enjoyable/necessary in their own way, there is something about having to excavate yourself from a Jesse Ball novel that makes you feel like the world is a little more monochrome than the one you were just reading about – but I also wonder if The Way Through Doors can really be consumed in a single go. It might be too dense, in a way that I didn’t expect and/or wasn’t prepared for.
This was Ball’s second novel and I do realize the silliness of essentially working backwards through an author’s list – their earlier work, almost by definition, will be less refined than their later or current work. This isn’t always the case and it’s not to say that this book was any less brilliant than Silence Once Begun or A Cure for Suicide, but this book feels more… let’s call it “raw” than those later novels. There is something defiant about this book, a sense that Ball is announcing himself, as though he has something to prove. This makes more sense when you realize that even though this was his second published novel, it was (by his website’s accounting, anyway) the first one he wrote. He is consciously playing with form here, in a way that can really only be described as “more complex” than his later novels.
The plot begins simply enough, but as Selah Morse begins to tell this mysterious young woman stories, the stories begin to nest and overlap and double back on each other – not to mention they become a kind of real, I think. Ball, skilled in lucid dreaming and in the crafting of compellingly odd narratives, has done something nearly impossible here by putting dreams onto the page in a way that actually mimics the way dreams unfold without feeling constructed. This novel, confusing and twisting as it can be, flows ahead and carries the reader along whether they are ready or not. Some flipping back and forth is almost bound to occur and there is a sense that a second reading (or, perhaps, a truly uninterrupted first reading) might help solidify some of one’s understanding of what has occurred and how the stories intersect with each other.
This book, more than any of the other Ball that I’ve read, is the also the one that feels like it wears its inspirations most plainly upon its pages. The enormous tunnel down into the earth that opens out onto a small sunlit cavern feels Murakamian by way of Narnia or Wonderland, the mysterious Seventh Ministry that Selah Morse works for is a little Kafka-esque by way of John le Carré, Sif is basically Jordan Baker, there are twists of folklore entwined with a writing style that at times directly mimics Hemingway’s – and we get a sense, through this novel, of the author himself. That’s an easy out, I know, but even considering that Ball has a novel wherein “Jesse Ball” is the main character, this one feels oddly like it is the most personal. It was difficult for me not to imagine the bearded photo on the back cover as I pictured Selah, and not because of the easy out to imagine that all authors must be writing about themselves. Instead, it was because this character felt similar to what I know about Jesse Ball – I know that he’s apparently written an actual pamphlet called World’s Fair 7 June 1987, that he is skilled in lucid dreaming, that he is a storyteller above all things. I imagined in this alternate world pictured here an alternate Jesse Ball, as though Selah and Jesse are alt-universe versions of each other.
However, none of this quite evades the one critique I have to level against this book and that is that it is at times almost so dense that it cannot float. As these tales start to nest more deeply, and as the narrative fractures further, the way can be lost – and the connection to the narrative reality thins almost to the point of invisibility. We know, somewhere in the back of our minds, that this is still Selah talking to this young woman named Mora – but didn’t he pull that name from thin air at the hospital? Is the story he’s putting together for her actually her true identity or is there something far darker occurring, with Selah constructing a persona for this woman so that she is tied to him? It was impossible for me to shake such a dark thought as the novel went on and I found myself wondering why the Mora identity was so immediately accepted. Even when Selah explains some of the various levels of the storytelling, I had the sense of still missing something. For whatever reason, I couldn’t take the fairy-tale at face value.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Ball has an unmistakable gift for literary intellectual magic that makes him one of my favorite authors, it’s now safe to say. This novel is more complex and harder to slice through than some of his other books, even ones that have a higher philosophical concept in play, but it shows that even from the very start, Ball had a distinct sense of what kind of writer he would be. There is an assurance on every page, a mark of intellectual rigor and care that shows Ball to be fully in control even when the reader is lost. I took a brief nap while reading this book, just a light 15 minute cat-nap, and dreamt of reading this book and turning to Part II – except there is no Part II, there isn’t even technically a Part I. Yet the things I dreamt are inextricable from the novel that I read, even if they aren’t real. Or, more interestingly indeed: perhaps they are real and Ball is a more talented writer than any of us know…