Jesse Ball's latest novel resembles his last in terms of its captivating strangeness but also its use of blank space. Those great splashes and stretches of white made sense in "Silence Once Begun" (2014) as they replicated that silence and mirrored the protagonist's meek disposition and quiet existence. It is harder to see their purpose in "A Cure for Suicide" — but then we don't delve into Ball's fathomless fictive worlds for clear-cut answers or spoon-fed rationale. By using so many narrative voids, breaks and ellipses, Ball has created a self-imposed challenge to make every word count. It is a tricky feat but one he ably pulls off.
Ball's slippery novel stubbornly refuses to be pinned down and tagged, and to synopsize it is, in a way, to simplify its riddles and dilute its inventiveness. It doesn't help that Ball's characters are un-fleshed-out stick people, nameless ciphers who remain secondary to his ideas and vision. At the heart of the novel are a man and a woman, the latter tasked with helping the former recuperate from an unspecified illness. He is the "claimant," she the "examiner." When he was sick he had a name: "But that name was forfeited — given up," she tells him.
This line with its corrected, graded language is crucial. Ball's claimant needs easy words because he is effectively relearning — "beginning from the beginning." His examiner explains to him basic nouns such as "chair" and "girl," before moving on to routine functions (writing, buttoning a shirt) and even feelings. This recovery process takes place in "a gentlest village," one of thousands in "the republic." All goes well for a while, and progress is made, until the claimant has a lesson on social interaction with strangers. He meets Hilda, who charms him and prompts him to question everything he has been taught. She also appeals to him for help, informing him that "they" are doing terrible things to her. Before he can come to her aid, Hilda disappears.
"A Cure for Suicide" skillfully stokes feelings of paranoia and persecution. As the claimant flounders and lapses, his dream records reading more like nightmare accounts, Ball makes his flailing reader scour for truth and scrabble for purchase. Who is deceiving whom? What is this sinister "fogging" procedure? And how are these villages "an improvement on the world"?
Ball's lean, clinical prose puts us in mind of Samuel Beckett, and his heady concoction of unsettling atmosphere, sterile environments and authorial obfuscations and distortions is redolent of the potent brew that powered recent dark fables from Chang-rae Lee and Howard Jacobson.
"A Cure for Suicide" drags in its last lap, but it possesses more than enough momentum to keep disturbing and provoking. Refreshingly unconventional, the novel sees a highly original writer take another left-field leap in a daring and rewarding direction.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.