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.