Jesse Ball’s Way Through Doors
by Weston Cutter
I missed Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness when it came out, though when I finally got around to it, I thought it was interesting and strange and wild and narrative-exploding but almost overwhelmingly cerebral (which, in fairness, it probably was and is: my desire for a story with overt heart’s my own thing). For sure, in Samedi, the writing betrays a sort of logician’s fever: the book’s clearly been written by someone for whom the mathematical satisfaction of things fitting together (story elements, in- or convoluted mysteries, etc.) must’ve packed a sort of emphatic emotional punch.
And now there’s The Way Through Doors, Ball’s second novel and a serious leap from Samedi, far as I’m concerned, though that’s not quite fair: the guiding joy or spirit or whatever through both books is similar, and anyone who’s read her share of Cortazar or Calvino or Borges is gonna be able to grasp a fair share of Doors‘s (as well as Samedi‘s) DNA. It seems like every review I’ve seen so far of this book (all two of them, Bookslut’s and Book Forum’s, plus an interview between J. Ball and the great Blake Butler) establish the same thing: that the novel’s central character around whom everything else wraps is named Selah Morse, and within the first ten or so pages he is given a job as a municipal inspector and then witnesses a young woman get hit by a car. He takes her to the hospital, names her, and takes her home where, he’s been told by her doctors, he must keep her awake for twenty-four hours (there’s a wink in there, obviously, to those of us for whom Fight Club‘s a significant cultural touchstone, and I’m sure there could be a real interesting paper written about the two stories’ overlap, but it’s not gonna be herein touched). When Morse gets “Mora Klein” (it’s a name he literally makes up/gives her) home, the story begins: Morse begins the told-to-Klein story right at the beginning of Doors‘s actual story, meaning we re-read how he gets his job, how he sees her get hit by the car, etc. From there, though, the story takes wildly off and, accompanied by a Guess Artist (a great, great character who can read people’s minds), Morse tracks through landscapes that are never quite real (and in plenty of places are overtly fable-ish), meets people, etc.
That’s really it: the book is set up as an almost clinically pure work not even just of fiction, but of storytelling: The Way Through Doors is Selah Morse telling stories. It’s not quite that simple, though: this isn’t some Arabian Nights, straightly told and direct. Selah’s narrative pushes forward and back, loops around on itself and then pushes (somehow) into itself: there’s a level of meta- here that’s disconcerting and literally ungrounding: for those of us who enjoy having some fundamental framework in place on which to enjoy a story, Doors will cause, at very best, a twinge of vertigo.
Which, for me, was the trouble, in lots of ways: I found the book just grossly addictive, and I read it in maybe three stretches, and by and large the overwhelming emotion I read because of and toward was an ache to figure out what the hell was going on (please know that I fear that my cool-kid postmodernism/metafiction pass is gonna be rescinded now, since I honestly don’t think I understood the book in some fundamental ways). There isn’t, however, anything to ‘get,’ not fundamentally: The Way Through Doors is essentially about the power of story, about how readers and tellers hope to find and/or create themselves in stories, and so the weirdly satisfying (aesthetically, not necessarily sensically) ending worked for me because it offers a sort of in—the story we’ve been told for these few hundred pages gets pushed toward and at again, and it’s cool and interesting and weird.
Still, all that said: I don’t understand this book. I don’t. I’m not this smart, and if I’ve read it correctly, and if the fundamental ‘point’ of the book is to offer the reader some new way of seeing how pivotal and vital the border between story and identity, between ‘acual’ self and ‘made’ self, then I still have questions. Who knows. I really, really wanted to write a glowingly cool and great review of this book, but I honestly don’t think I’m smart enough for it. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing when, on finishing a work, the reader feels an urge to apologize to the author for not getting it, but that’s how I felt on finishing this.