Read in One Sitting

‘Autoportrait’
Jesse Ball (Lin Woldendorp)

Writers love writing about themselves. Indeed, one could argue that’s simply what writers do, no matter the subject at hand. A novel about nineteenth-century homesteaders? A study of microbial bacteria? Both can be a means for a writer to follow her obsessions and find herself. When it comes to contemporary literary fiction, writers tend to stay closer to home. The protagonists of many novels are thinly veiled versions of their authors, as in No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood or Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler. Perhaps the most famous recent example of this approach is Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle functions as autobiography in all but name, detailing the travails of Karl Ove across six increasingly weighty volumes.

Why all the navel-gazing? Are writers today more self-involved than before? Surely not; literary self-involvement is, like gravity, a constant throughout the universe. The likely cause is structural rather than personal. In a cultural moment where artists are, rightly or wrongly, concerned about appropriating identities other than their own, staying within the lane of one’s own self sidesteps the possibility for giving offense. Call such novelists self-absorbed, call them solipsists, but you can’t cancel them. Well, not for their novels, at least; other behaviors could always attract the public’s ire.

Of course, not all novelists stay within the lane of their identity. Jesse Ball, born in 1978, veers into the incoming traffic of differing selves with astonishing prolificacy. The author of almost twenty books, including novels, volumes of poetry, and collections of drawings, Ball inhabits whichever kind of character strikes his fancy. Samedi the Deafness follows a young man who gets caught up in a madcap scheme to render the whole world deaf; How to Set a Fire and Why is about a teenage girl who falls in with a group of anarchists. He writes in an absurdist, fable-like register, his books reading less like contemporary fiction and more like obscure fairy tales passed down from forgotten cultures. Even Silence Once Begun, which does feature a protagonist named Jesse Ball, escapes the gravitational pull of realism almost immediately. His alter ego travels to Japan after the end of a relationship. There, he investigates the strange case of a man who confessed to a crime he didn’t commit. Think Philip Roth crossed with Haruki Murakami.

But Ball’s newest book, Autoportrait, is firmly realistic. Indeed, it’s not even a novel, autofictional or otherwise. It’s a memoir, filled with finely observed details and sharp little anecdotes. But that’s about as far as the similarities to other memoirs go. It figures that Ball, author of unconventional novels, would write an unconventional memoir.

In an author’s note, Ball states that his approach to memoir is one “that does not raise one fact above another, but lets the facts stand together in a fruitless clump, like life.” Flip through the pages, and you see what he means. There are no chapters, no page breaks, no sections demarcated with an asterisk. Autoportrait unfolds in one long, unbroken paragraph, like one of those European headache novels by Thomas Bernhard or László Krasznahorkai. But the sentences in those novels are long and meandering, with multiple switchbacking clauses. Each sentence in Autoportrait offers a brief glimpse into Ball’s life and personality: his preferences, his habits, his experiences. Strung together, these sentences create a kind of strobing effect, as disparate images across vast stretches of time are condensed into a single, recursive loop.

Some sentences achieve the status of aphorism: “I have never known a cruel person to become gentle and kind, though I have seen the opposite thing take place.” Some are like jokes: “My middle name is William. I find this to be an imposition.” And some are perfect gems of observation, as when Ball describes one of his ears going deaf. He visits a nurse, who removes a huge blockage of wax from the ear. “The hour following this was one of the most beautiful of my life: I could hear again, almost supernaturally.”

As insightful as some of the individual sentences are, the book achieves its fullest effect in aggregate. Autoportrait is the kind of book best read all at once, in a single sitting, during a lazy afternoon. The time spent reading the book becomes unusually full, like the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Picard gets zapped by an alien probe and lives out the entire lifespan of a long-dead scientist over the course of just a few hours. Autoportrait immerses you deeply in another’s experience for a short while, then returns you back to yourself.

 

There’s a certain arbitrariness to this kind of autobiographical writing. Anything could be included, and often is.

Appropriation is vital to Ball’s literary practice. Much of his style involves lifting the techniques of certain European writers and filtering them through his own perspective as an American who feels very much out of place in his country of birth. Kafka and his heirs—writers like Robert Walser and Daniil Kharms—are the most important to Ball. Such writers are fundamentally subtractive, reducing fiction to its bare essence. The results often appear like fairy tales without a moral, or jokes without a punchline. One of Kharms’s very short stories begins, “There lived a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears.” The story keeps stripping this poor man of every last trait, until he’s not even there anymore. It ends: “So we don’t even know who we’re talking about. It’s better than we don’t talk about him anymore.” An off-kilter fable that ends with a flourish of black humor—it’s easy to see the influence on Ball.

The form of Autoportrait also takes its cue from another European writer. The author’s note states that Ball explicitly took the idea from French writer and photographer Édouard Levé, who also wrote a book titled Autoportrait, which also consists of many different memories and impressions compiled into a single, book-length paragraph. Levé was very fond of such high-minded stunts. For Amérique, a photographic project, he visited small towns in the United States named after famous European cities (Oxford, Mississippi; Berlin, Maryland) and photographed strangers who agreed to pose for him in places like restaurants and grocery stores. Many of them stare directly into the camera with blank expressions, perhaps uncertain as to why this funny Frenchman wants to take their picture. Levé would likely appreciate Ball’s appropriation were he still around to read it. But Levé took his own life in 2007, shortly after delivering a manuscript titled Suicide to his editor.

Perhaps the foremost practitioner of this pointillist approach to autobiography was the American artist and writer Joe Brainard. I Remember, from 1970, consists of a series of statements, each of them beginning with the words in the book’s title. “I remember when polio was the worst thing in the world,” writes Brainard, a child of the 1950s. “I remember juke boxes you could see pick up the records.” Framed so simply, the torrent of memories reaches an incantatory register, each one flowing into the other. Reading I Remember makes you want to try out the exercise for yourself, scribble the title on a piece of paper and see what memories it summons.

There’s a certain arbitrariness to this kind of autobiographical writing. Anything could be included, and often is. But the lack of an overarching narrative means that the reader comes away with a strong sense of the author’s personality, perhaps even more than in a more conventional memoir. Levé, for example, gives one a strange sense of both revelation and privacy, as if the more he tells you about himself, the more mysterious he seems. Brainard acquits the role of the friendly, cheerful American with panache. Even the saddest passages in I Remember—the deaths of friends, Brainard’s struggles with growing up gay in Eisenhower-era America—only bolster the can-do optimism of the book. Ever the Boomer, Brainard is always looking on the bright side.

What do we learn about Ball’s personality? He is, in a word, cranky. He prefers to be alone. He hates cars, exercise, organized religion. He likes trees. He likes musical instruments, considering them to be humanity’s highest achievement. He hates his phone, even though he writes his books on it. At one point he writes, “My political views are so outlandish that almost no one agrees with me. Therefore, I prefer not to talk about politics.” A genuine European misanthrope like Bernhard might leap at the chance to detail his outlandish views, but Ball keeps many of his beliefs to himself—an unusual move to make in a memoir.

I’ve been reading Ball for years and consider him an immensely talented novelist. But his gifts for invention, absurdism, and fable simply lend themselves better to fiction than to nonfiction. Indeed, one could even say that a novel allows Ball to portray more personal material drawn from his own life than a memoir—or this memoir—does. Autoportrait makes a few passing references to Ball’s brother and the role he played in his life. We learn that his brother became a quadriplegic at some point and that he died at a young age. But an earlier novel gives, in fictional form, a much stronger sense of Ball’s brother, and of Ball’s relationship with him.

Ball’s younger brother was named Abram. He had Down syndrome. When he was young, Ball expected he would grow up to become his brother’s full-time caretaker. But following a series of illnesses, Abram died at a young age. These events, alchemized into fiction, form the basis for Census, a moving, personal novel. In the story, a father is near death, and he wishes to go on one last journey with his son. The son is the fictional analogue for Abram, although it is never specified that he has Down syndrome. The son is the hollow core of the story. Rarely directly portrayed, he is seen from the perspectives of secondary characters. We see the effects his presence has on them. As father and son travel across a bare landscape, the father acting as the census-taker for a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, citizens and village residents react to the son, some of them with curiosity, others with hostility, while the son himself never says a word. Such tricks of perspective can easily feel too clever for their own good, but in Census they serve the aim of the story perfectly. The son becomes an object of mysterious gravity—much as Ball’s brother was in his own life.

Census ultimately feels more personal than Autoportrait, arising as it does from a relationship, from one life enmeshed with another. The quality of intimacy on display in the novel counts for more, finally, than the quantity of anecdotes in the memoir. That’s not to say there’s no point in reading Autoportrait. Just the opposite, in fact. I came away from it with a new appreciation for the mystery of creativity, of the unseen ways the imagination works. If you read Autoportrait before reading any of Ball’s other work, you’d never guess what kind of novels he’s produced. Unlike so many autofiction writers working today, Ball filters his own experiences through his prodigious imagination, producing strange work that feels almost familiar, like half-remembered stories from childhood. His work reminds us that, even in this age of the personal, the relationship between real life and good art remains a mystery.

Autoportrait
Jesse Ball
Catapult
$20 | 140 pp.

Published in the November 2022 issue: 

Adam Fleming Petty is the author of a novella, Followers. His essays have appeared in the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature, Vulture, and other outlets. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  

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