Jesse Ball’s The Way through Doors is an extraordinary tonic to that tiresome lament that the novel is dead, a single-handed draught for the literary chopfallen. The Way through Doors has all the necessary ingredients – sneaky, silvery prose; intrepid storytelling; thoughtful metafictional interrogration; and such tenderness as is rarely well executed – for an actual, real, motherf’ing book of the year. Let’s not pollute this conversation with talk of the recency effect. This is probably the best thing I’ve read in 2009.
Selah Morse, a young pamphleteer, in conversation with his uncle, receives new employment as a municipal inspector. His new colleague, Levkin, gives Selah a new blue-grey suit, like to those worn by Armenian intelligence. Amorphous though the role may be – there are no parameters or tasks – it’s a pleasing one. Rita, the message girl, is particularly pleasing, with her prettiness and the tea she brings. After six or nine months as a municipal inspector, Selah is out on the street, on his way to buy noodles. A fine looking girl with bare shoulders and elegant mien is also out and about, walking down the street, when she is hit by a taxi. To assist her, Selah requisitions the taxi and they drive to the hospital, where Selah poses as the girl’s boyfriend. He selects a name for her: Mora Klein. Mora’s memory has been lost, and the doctor tells Selah that to recover it, Selah must keep her awake overnight, and help her reconstruct her past.
Beginning with a story familiar to The Way through Doors’ readers, that of his initiation into the municipal service, Selah searches for truths with which to anoint Mora’s soul. But the tale is long and gathers up its own turning velocity. Before long, Selah’s story is subsumed by another, told by Levkin; an explanatory spiel that helps Selah to realise that the municipal inspector’s role is as ‘a randomizing element in the psychology of the city’. Soon, another story takes hold, this time the story of ‘the curling touch’, told by the Chinese chef of ‘the best vegetable steamed dumplings in the whole city’. These tales coalesce and nudge one another, pools of inked water that bleed inexorably into each other, but retain their own pigments. The stories are ‘phrases cast upon precise winds’, espousing and embracing one another with a curious and exhilarating logic (or lack thereof).
The Way through Doors is not so much a story as it is about story. In many ways, it is Kafkaesque, its teetering dimensions reminiscent of a swimming pool with, impossibly, no bottom. Yet it retains the best aspects of story itself, including its capacity to illuminate the oddnesses of our narrative-hungry human race. Ball’s interest in exhibiting how we prioritise narrative above reality can be seen in his other work, too. He is a creative writing teacher, and one of his writing exercises is an exercise in lying: the student is to convince a friend that they did something that has never happened, using as persuasive ballast the student’s knowledge of what characteristic their friend holds most dear about their self. Also in Ball’s well-stocked and unusual arsenal is the tumbling minstrelry of Boccaccio; the evident teller’s enchantment I associate with the Australian ‘yarn’, something told for the sake of itself; the universality of folk tales; the metafictional defiance of Calvino; and a crooning tenderness that is all Ball’s own.
With all its superincumbent passageways and blithe ladders, The Way through Doors should be a virtuoso reading effort. But, instead, it’s one of the most dazzling and joyful reading experiences that has ignited my reading this year.
A little venture into Jesse Ball’s website.