Jesse Ball


"The Way Through Doors"

(Reviewed by Tony Ross FEB 16, 2009)

The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball

If you like fiction in which stories are nested within each other, tumbling and turning inside and out like a narrative mobius strip -- well, this is the book for you. But if you're someone who prefers realism, a classic three-act narrative arc, characters with depth, and all the trappings of "normal" fiction -- well, you're probably not going to like this.

The book's almost pointless framing device occurs when a young man in a New York-like metropolis of indefinite period sees a young woman knocked down by a taxi. He takes her to the hospital, where she lies in a coma, and the doctors tell the young man he must keep her mind occupied for 18 hours by talking to her. Thus, he starts spinning a tale, although it rather quickly becomes questionable as to whether he's telling stories, or stories are telling him.

It's all rather clever and tricksy in a McSweenysesque manner: the young man is a "pamphleteer" and the stories introduce the reader to all manner oddities, such as the tallest building in the city (which is actually subterranean and may iactually be a foxes den), an inn with a fiddle-playing dog, a mind-reading companion of remarkable acuity, a girl who is born with the ability to draw a line straighter than any device known to man, the world's luckiest gambler, and so on. Just to give a taste, this is the kind of book where a man's job comes with authority that is "unlimited and nonexistent." If you find that kind of phrase compelling, you might well enjoy the book.

It's an interesting world, but one so topsy-turvey that you can't really try and make sense of it, you just need to let the writing wash over you. There are lots of nice turns of phrase, and the author clearly has style to burn. The question is whether or not it adds up to anything by the end. And with a book like this, there are sure to be a set of readers who find the experience magical, and another set who find it rather empty. I'm somewhere in the middle --I enjoyed some of the style, but it didn't end up sparking much of anything in me, despite its evident interest in themes of identity, passage, and vocation. But it's certainly worth trying if you like contemporary experimental fiction (for example, Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves ) or the work fabulists like Calvino or Borges.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 12 reviews


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About the Author:

Jesse BallJesse Ball was born in 1978. He is a poet, artist and novelist.

Ball attended Vassar College, where he studied literature, and poetry writing. At Vassar, he took many courses in religion, and participated in a program visiting Greenhaven Prison. He also won a travel fellowship to do photography in India. Following Vassar, Ball attended Columbia University, where he earned an MFA and met the eminent poet Richard Howard. Howard was to help the then 24-year-old poet publish his first volume, March Book, with Grove Press.

Ball won the Plimpton Prize in 2008 for his novella, The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr published in the Paris Review. A work of his was included in Best American Poetry 2006.

He is an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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