January 2009

Sean P. Carroll

fiction

The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball

Jesse Ball’s second novel, after 2007’s Samedi the Deafness, begins with an innocuous premise. Selah Morse, an amateur pamphleteer by vocation, is unexpectedly given a job as a municipal inspector by his uncle. His qualifications for this job are unclear but it is meant to serve as a distraction from his pamphleteering which in his uncle’s eye will bring him to “no conceivable good.” The role and scope of municipal inspector is murky at best. According to the Senior Inspector Mars Levkin their authority is both “unlimited and nonexistent.” Selah, now invested with this ambiguous authority, is permitted access to areas of a not-quite New York City that were previously off limits or in some cases unknown. While his work as an inspector is not the central point of this compelling work it offers a convenient entry into the labyrinthine and seamless narratives of The Way Through Doors.

Early in Selah’s tenure as inspector he witnesses an accident involving a taxi collision with a young woman. Selah brings her to the hospital and identifies himself as her boyfriend even though he has no idea who she is. The fact that the woman carries no identification allows this flimsy ruse to succeed and “Mora Klein,” as Selah names her, is discharged into his care with the caveat that he must ensure that she remain awake for 24 hours due to the concussion she suffered. It is at this point of the book that the “true business” begins. Selah decides to keep Mora conscious by telling her a story. The beginning of his tale, a modified retelling of his ascent to inspector, is the unassuming portal to a brilliant web of artfully constructed narratives that are limned with elements of the unreal juxtaposed with the rituals of the past. Ball’s talent as a contemporary fabulist is clearly on display as Selah, accompanied by his companion, a Guess Artist from the remote realm of Coney Island, traverses the various narratives guided by a map that he made of his life when he was but a child. Selah uses his various tales not only to keep Mora alert but to hopefully tease out her identity.

Identity and vocation are recurring themes throughout the book. After Selah “names” Mora the mysterious girl acquires a unique history that is subsequently presented as fact, and in some instances as part of the public record, for the remainder of the novel. In a lesser writer’s hands the character of the Guess Artist would be reduced to a sideshow spectacle but Ball understands the gravity and dignity of his role along with the unspoken implications of his trade. This dedication is equally evident in Ball’s portrayal of the dead-letter clerk and his wife as well as the sailmaker-who-wished-he-were-an-arcadist. Even though both parties have secret passions they continue to toil with grace in their respective roles. Also, Selah has a deep respect for the office and duties of inspector even though he pursues his pamphleteering work with a near religious devotion. One of the central mysteries in the book is Selah’s magnum opus-in-making, a pamphlet with the enigmatic title of World’s Fair 7 June 1978. It has a talismanic draw for several of the characters and its unknown potential and fluid nature speaks to the heart of this novel. While the familiar tropes of myth and fable are incorporated into Selah’s stories they are artfully reinvented to create a quest novel unlike any other.

Ball’s poetic background is obvious not only in his linguistic precision but in what is left unwritten or speculative. The Way Through Doors is not genre busting, yet it seems to exist on the borderlands of fiction, poetry and the oral tradition. It is a brilliant work that respects and understands the inherent power of story and Ball masterfully creates a world that is familiar, mysterious and utterly captivating. 

The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball
Vintage Books
ISBN: 978-0307387462           
240 Pages