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Book Review: The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball

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Within the first few pages of Jesse Ball's second novel, The Way Through Doors, it's abundantly clear that the book exists in a world not quite our own. While ostensibly set in New York City, the metropolis is treated as a slippery dreamworld, where the Brooklyn dead-letter office is piled two stories high with envelopes and the tallest building is not the Empire State Building, but a secret one that extends deep underground.

As the story begins, a young man named Selah Morse begins work as a municipal inspector in the Seventh Ministry at his powerful uncle's behest. The nature of his work is unknown even to him, but he's given a well-tailored suit (in the manner of those worn by the Albanian secret police, as one character notes) lined with secret pockets, some containing strange letters addressed to him. His office is a strange, Kafkaesque place, accessible only by ladder. During his first day on the job, his message-girl, cat-like Rita, almost poisons him before deciding against it on a whim.

Selah soon settles into his routine, though what exactly his work consists of remains unclear. The story begins to take shape when, one afternoon, Selah witnesses a beautiful stranger run down by a taxicab, striking her head (and only her head). For unexplained reasons, he accompanies the girl to the hospital and pretends to be her boyfriend. He's told that the girl has lost her memories, and that he should create a book about her life so she may remember them again. Most importantly, though she may be discharged, she absolutely cannot fall asleep. Selah christens the girl Mora Klein and decides to keep her awake by telling stories throughout the night.

These stories form the major body of The Way Through Doors. In a structure reminiscent of Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, Ball begins to follow threads of narrative only to drop them and move onto something else entirely, opening up stories within stories like nesting dolls. The Way Through Doors is an inventive and strange little book, toying with the possibilities of narrative while giving us tantalizingly incomplete glimpses at dozens of possible fictions. But even when it appears that the book is ready to disappear into itself, Ball manages to reign in his story, making sure everything, even the loose threads, fit together with a certain sort of internal logic. The Way Through Doors is about good storytelling, and it would be a dismal failure if Ball were not a good enough storyteller to keep up with his subject. Luckily for us, he's more than capable.

Ball's previous work — particularly Vera & Linus, a collection produced in collaboration with his wife Thórdís Björnsdóttir — owes a heavy debt to fairy and folk tales, and this book is no different. At times certain characters and scenarios may veer dangerously towards the twee and much of the dialogue is far from realistic, but if one keeps the author's influences in mind, the book plays out more convincingly (or more acceptably unconvincingly).

In the presentation of the work, Ball eschews page numbers in lieu of what might normally be categorized as line numbers, but in this case function as variable length storytelling units. Each unit, in this context, can consist of dialogue (one or more lines), a single poetic sentence, or a lengthy paragraph. There is something in this unconventional choice that speaks strongly to the power of the book as a printed object. With the page numbers replaced with more elastic place-markers, one's progress through the book becomes less quantifiable and there is a certain magic in being lost without any traditional signposts. Certainly you can look at the book and see how far you've come and how much you have left to read, or you can calculate what "unit" you're reading in the context of the total number within the book, but these are vague, imprecise units of measurement. There's something vaguely subversive in a physical object containing a story of indeterminate length, a paradoxical sort of feeling that would not translate the same if reading on an e-book device like the Kindle.

The value of the printed page plays an important role in the book's narrative as well. The protagonist is a pamphleteer, producing strange, poetic essays and fictions on a large, antique printing press in his apartment. He obsesses over the production of one pamphlet in particular, the evocatively and strangely titled World's Fair 7 June 1978, which captivates a number of the secondary characters and takes on a mystical aura that the story never quite penetrates. Even with all of Ball's literary inventiveness, he could not possibly have produced a vision of the pamphlet itself to rival what is left unseen.

I devoured The Way Through Doors in a single evening, enchanted by the author's prose style and narrative capabilities. While some people may be turned off by the lack of realism and the only faint glimpses of a real human element in the story, the connection I felt with the author as he spun his fictions transcended my need to empathize with the characters within. Like Franz Kafka and Italo Calvino, both obvious influences on the text, Ball is a gifted fabulist and The Way Through Doors is a charming and inventive read. 

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