On the pages of Census that have roman numerals (so I guess it is an author introduction, but it’s really important to the book), author Jesse Ball explains that he had an older brother who was born with Down syndrome. Abram Ball died at the age of 24 in 1998, but while they were still children, Jesse understood that he would grow up and take care of Abram. Because of Abram’s death at a young age, this anticipated aspect of Jesse’s life never came to pass.
Census is the story of a father, who is dying, and his son, who has Down syndrome, and a final trip that they take together to places they haven’t been. The father takes a job as a census taker and they travel from A to Z.
And that plot summary, although accurate, is the most inadequate description that could possibly be written about this book. The census isn’t a counting of people, it’s more a collection of stories from people that might somehow explain society. And the book itself isn’t about the father or the census, it’s really about the boy. In the introduction, Ball explains how he undertook to write a book “about” his brother:
I didn’t see exactly how it could be done, until I realized that I would make a book that was hollow. I would place him in the middle of it, and write around him for the most part. He would be there in his effect.
Honestly, I still couldn’t explain to you what this means, “to make a book that is hollow'” but damned if this isn’t exactly what Ball has accomplished.
This is a simple book to read and a powerful book to think about.
The simple part is that it is a charming tale of love and loss and acceptance. The powerful part is that, more than any novel that I’ve read recently, Census works with the reader’s own life experiences, somehow allows the reader space to insert themself into the story, and forces the reader to confront their own reactions to and judgements of individuals and societies that are different. This makes Census difficult to recommend universally because it seems impossible to anticipate how anyone else would respond to reading this book.
I loved all the short passages that I marked to jot down in my journal such as:
There is a dream that the place you await does in fact like in wait for you. This is the dream of the traveler.
This is a sort of proof of something I have long believed: that reason and sensical behavior are not always necessary if there exists some small flood of kindness.
I loved the character established only by our narrator’s (the father’s), remembrances – his late wife, the boy’s mother. She was a successful performer before marrying the father and having the son. Whereas the father, a doctor by profession, was a healer and an observer of people, the mother, a clown, was able to exist and even synchronize with people. Ball admits to casting himself as the father in this novel, the role he imagined that he would be playing in his adulthood. I believe, as an author, he is also describing a side of himself in this description of the mother:
Also, she thought the person she was in her letters was someone she herself did not know until the letter was written and then it was like she was meeting herself.
I loved the section about the photographs. How the parents had provided the boy with photographs of people and places that he knew and that he could arrange and rearrange on a wall of his room. An activity, an exercise, perhaps to allow the boy to see his world in a different way and to give his parents an understanding of how the boy saw his world.
I loved how the book was physically laid out. I loved Ball’s writing. My husband has a (HORRIBLE AND UNACCEPTABLE) habit of opening a book to the middle and reading a few pages as a way of judging if the book is worthy of his time. I probably would not think much of Ball’s writing style if I did that; odd spacing/formatting and stream-of-consciousness, run-on sentences. All of which are completely appropriate and totally work within the context of the narrator observing and describing his world.
Forget what I wrote earlier about Census being difficult to recommend universally. You, few but loyal followers, should read this book. And then we should talk about it. This is my first book to read for the 2019 Tournament of Books. This one will be hard to top.