All Possible Subsets: An Interview with Jesse Ball

by Lawrence Lenhart

A CURE FOR SUICIDE is primarily a work of speculative fiction: the Claimant has his memory erased, moves into a clinical village, and is reeducated by a watchful woman, the Examiner. Despite its Shyamalanian conceit, though, Jesse Ball’s novel proceeds in a way that comes to resemble a mystery, a philosophical treatise, and a romance all at once.

To achieve this enigma, Ball uses varied techniques: the “Process of Villages” is an unfamiliar world that rarely brushes up against the reader’s world; the narration is elliptical, its silences uncharted and opaque; and the characters’ motivations are obscured by scripts they’re obliged to rehearse. Written in crisp prose, A CURE FOR SUICIDE revels in these fluctuating gaps as Ball proffers a user’s manual for the newly blanked mind.

Also the author of the novel SILENCE ONCE BEGUN and the multi-volume cross-genre omnibus THE VILLAGE ON HORSEBACK, Ball is an instructor at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he teaches courses on writing and lucid dreaming. It’s unsurprising then that the Claimant, like Ball’s students, is required to record a dream journal as a way of vying for control of the wilds of his dreamscapes. Below, Ball answers a few questions about his new novel via email exchange.


BRAZOS BOOKSTORE: Gertrude Stein once characterized Ezra Pound as “a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.” The Examiner is a literal village explainer, systematically revealing the world anew to the Claimant who is, in many ways, the village. This makes them a good match, but how did you craft the novel so that it was also accessible for the reader—“making it new” without entering some kind of metaphysical wormhole?

JESSE BALL: The position of the reader is neither that of the examiner nor that of the claimant. It is both—and also others, in empathy, that of the author, and that of the other, the one beyond the story (for whom it is written), and still further, the other for whom the story is not written. Because of the multiplicity of roles and the fact that there is nothing I can explain that my readers do not already know, I cannot adhere to the structure of Stein's phrasing. I am not interested in literature and its world but instead in objects that can be immediately useful to someone who has no other possessions, no circles of acquaintance. Many good books are like this, and mine try to be.

BB: As part of his therapy regimen, the Claimant’s memory is reset. Like the Examiner, though, the reader’s experience of the claimant is continuous. How important is dramatic irony in the narration of the novel, our awareness of the character’s history and progress?

JB: It turns out to be crucial to the overall structure, as the story would appear flaccid if its doubling mechanism (claimant//manwhoaddressesinterlocutor) were to be undetected. I would like to think the basic phrasing of the thoughts would be of some use, even without their grander purpose, but I am not in much of a position to say. As above (q.1) the empathy of the reader is not simply with the claimant anyway, but strewn throughout the various makers, effectors, receivers: so the dramatic irony of the memory gaps is but one loop in a larger garment.

BB: At first, “cure for suicide” sounds hyperbolic when compared with common parlance (i.e., “suicide prevention”). Likewise, the process of villages seems like an elaborate crisis hotline. Yet in the novel, it feels very pragmatic. In writing speculative fiction, how important is it for you to gesture to the phenomenological point of departure, the reader’s culture?

JB: Perhaps gesture is too strong a word. I think I play with ideas that are in the air. Regarding suicide—who says it even needs curing? With regard to your point, I would say books that try to respond too directly to their moment miss their mark, like blunderbusses fired at the sun.

BB: As the Examiner reeducates the Claimant—hardwiring him, really—she alternates between very essential etiquette tips and markedly less utilitarian topics. I’m reminded of when she casually tells the Claimant the lowest part of the banister is called the “newel.” There’s something beguilingly discrepant about the disparity of these details. How does the Examiner’s script communicate the values of this novel’s society? Or, is this simply a rogue Examiner?

JB: Perhaps there cannot be a rogue examiner. That much even is difficult to say. One thing to keep in mind is: only the smallest portion of their dialogue is in evidence. Also, the values of the society are communicated extremely conditionally, because the examiner's entire script may be an antiquated posture. It is very theatrical in this way.

BB: In many ways, this is a book about ideas, about epistemology. It's a book for the proverbial bibliophilic aliens to read. That being said, the Claimant asks, “Is writing thinking?” Well, is it? What else might it be?

JB: It is all the things it might be—at once, in turn, and in all possible subsets. A complicated question like this must be considered in light of how much time we have as humans with death pressing close. With that in mind: writing gives us the company of other minds better than many other things do. For those of us who love this sort of company, it is the very luckiest thing to have it—and in such great supply.

LAWRENCE LENHART holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. His work appears or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, Wag’s Revue, and elsewhere. Currently living in Sacramento, he is reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.

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