“When a widower receives notice from a doctor that he doesn’t have long left to live, he is struck by the question of who will care for his adult son—a son whom he fiercely loves, a boy with Down syndrome. With no recourse in mind, and with a desire to see the country on one last trip, the man signs up as a census taker for a mysterious governmental bureau and leaves town with his son.
Traveling into the country, through towns named only by ascending letters of the alphabet, the man and his son encounter a wide range of human experience. While some townspeople welcome them into their homes, others who bear the physical brand of past censuses on their ribs are wary of their presence. When they press toward the edges of civilization, the landscape grows wilder, and the towns grow farther apart and more blighted by industrial decay. As they approach ‘Z,’ the man must confront a series of questions: What is the purpose of the census? Is he complicit in its mission? And just how will he learn to say good-bye to his son?
Mysterious and evocative, Census is a novel about free will, grief, the power of memory, and the ferocity of parental love, from one of our most captivating young writers.”
My Thoughts: There is something about literary fiction which attracts me and repels me at the same time. I love it for the way it typically evokes a strong emotional response, the strong character development, and slow pace that allows the story to fully build, and yet while reading it I cannot help but feel like I am not intelligent enough to catch every nuance. I always envision intellectuals sitting around over drinks talking about the philosophical themes and the sociological implications of the novel’s events, referencing classical literature or philosophers that are unknown to me. In other words, literary fiction is intimidating as hell.
In his latest novel Census, Jesse Ball creates an approachable literary novel that any person can understand because it is not about esoteric philosophies but rather about the one thing everyone can understand – love, grief, and the memories that surround those emotions. Everything that occurs to the narrator and his son on their journey is nothing but the impetus for memories to arise. There is no action, no real plot. It is nothing more than the memories of a person at the end of his life remembering the love and affection for and from others that graced his life and his wishes for his son. It is powerful and poignant and compelling.
To go into Census without preparation does mean struggles in the beginning. For one, much is made of the census for which the narrator begins his journey. Much is made of it but no one ever explains it. At the same time, there is no world-building. We are left with nothing but geographic areas identified by a single letter, a nebulous journey north, and an indication that the world of the narrator is not our world. There is no time stamp nor any hint whether the world is post-apocalyptic or simply an alternate universe. It would be easy to get caught up in these lack of details if only because inquiring minds want to know but also because the narrator expects us to know. There is no world-building because the narrator understands we are from his world and therefore already know all about his world’s history and the history of the census. To focus on that though is to miss the point of the story.
The point of Census is not the census. Nor is it the journey the narrator takes with his son. Rather, the novel is nothing more than an ode to his son. Once you realize that, you can become the active reader the story requires you to be as you go along with the narrator through his memories and get to know both men through them. Once you stop fighting the lack of world-building, you are swept away on a tide of emotions.
Little is actually made about the fact that the narrator’s son has Down’s Syndrome. In fact, I am still trying to remember if the narrator ever directly mentions it or whether this is a piece of information we know from the synopsis and the author’s note at the beginning of the novel. What we do see is how the narrator has structured his life around making sure his son experiences as little pain and grief as possible, and we especially see the joy his son brings him. There are dark moments when we are reminded of people’s cruelty, but the majority of the novel focuses on the positive – on the little joys his son brings to every moment and the subsequent joys his son brings him as a result. When our world is falling further into chaos and negativity, the narrator’s stories are a reminder that love trumps hate every single time.
Census is not flashy, and it will not generate the loud buzz that some other spring books are already receiving. Yet, it is going to be a success because it is so very lovely, and we all need a little beauty and joy in our lives right now. It is one that will mean different things to different people but will affect everyone who reads it. In the author’s note, Mr. Ball mentions he set out to write a love story about his brother who passed away several years ago. In that, he more than succeeded, for Census is a love story about everyone who has ever been loved, about anyone who has been considered different or not normal. Census is a balm to heal the wounds from which we all suffer caused by the hatred and vitriol being spewed by all sides on a daily basis.