A REVOLVING TALE

  • Article by: ETHAN RUTHERFORD , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 27, 2009 - 6:06 PM

A city worker is tasked with keeping an injured woman awake for a day, so he starts spinning tales.

The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball

Readers already familiar with the work of Jesse Ball -- he received the Paris Review's 2008 Plimpton Prize, and his first novel, "Samedi the Deafness," was published in 2007 -- will know the sort of narrative strangeness/dislocation that lies in store for them in his new book, "The Way Through Doors." Readers unfamiliar with him are in for a treat, for there seems to be no other novelist writing today who is capable of so thoroughly disarming one's narrative expectations.

As the book opens, Selah Morse -- an artist who makes pamphlets with titles such as "An Inquiry Into the Ultimate Utility of the Silly, as Prefigured in the Grave and Inhospitable" -- has been given a job as a municipal inspector. This, as Selah says, allows him to "go about the city" (the city being New York, but only in the vaguest sense) and "inspect virtually anything we choose. Our authority is both unlimited and non-existent."

A few months into this job, a woman is hit by a car; she is physically fine, but her memory seems to be gone. At the hospital, Selah, pretending to know her, gives her a name and is then tasked by doctors to help her remember who she is. "The important thing for the next 18 hours is to keep her awake," they tell Selah. "She can be discharged tonight, as long as you'll take her somewhere quiet and stay with her."

Selah, it turns out, is more than up for this Sheherazade-ian task. He takes the woman home and begins telling her the story that will take up the rest of the novel, which is about a municipal inspector questing after a mysterious and elusive girl. It's here that the book takes on its fantastic, fairy-tale quality -- we meet a guess artist (who can guess what you're thinking if you give him three tries); an old house that soars through the air; a family of shape-shifting foxes; the ugliest woman in the world. Over the course of the evening, these stories begin to overlap and blend together. Characters appear and disappear; events occur, and settings are achieved according to the narrative logic of a fever-dream.

The book mobilizes its narrative like one giant piece of Origami paper, folded it into different, exquisite set pieces, which are then unfolded and folded into something else.

The story isn't without flaws, occasionally bowing too much toward the whimsical and precious (a sail-makers' needle is "the sort of needle that might be used to sew your heart shut with rope") or toward being too personally encoded to let the reader in (the pamphleteer's greatest work takes for its title Ball's birthday). Some descriptive flights of fancy don't fly (someone's face looks like "the seventh whisker of a devil-cat intent upon the stalking of its prey"). And yet, and yet. This book leaves one awestruck and the unique artistry of its author seems to stand as a paean to the generative, storytelling imagination.

So what's it about? I can't tell you that, and in some ways it seems like that's the wrong question to ask. If pressed, I'd say I think it has something to do with grief and love and the importance of making art, but I have no proof for this. It's that, sure, but it's also much more than that -- perhaps infinitely more. You'll just have to read it for yourself.

Ethan Rutherford is a writer in Minneapolis.

  • THE WAY THROUGH DOORS

    By: Jesse Ball.

    Publisher: Vintage Contemporaries, 240 pages, $13.95.

    Review: Jesse Ball's magical narrative defies description, as one story shape-shifts into the next, like gracefully folding and unfolding Origami sculptures.

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