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Message in a Klein Bottle

By (April 1, 2009) No Comment

The Way through Doors

By Jesse Ball
Vintage, 2009

Like others, I thought at first of a set of nesting-boxes – but then I found myself in the book’s very midst; as I wove through to the end, I realized it was not nesting-boxes, but a Klein bottle, pressed into the pages. Inside and outside are one – is there in fact a way to distinguish which is which? – an ant could walk upon its surface indefinitely, at the middle there is a folding or a nexus which reveals the curious and subtle power events that occur early hold over events that appear to occur later. Bits of plot that seem to be merely tangential to the main story ultimately undermine the story itself, and, in the process, they reveal themselves to be fare more important than the insignificant bits they appear to be. The effect, for the reader, is one of trying to translate a four-dimensional structure into a three-dimensional structure: you feel you must be missing something, some twist or arc, but, flipping back through pages, there are only ever what one character terms “dissipate geographies.”  

Reviewers attempting to explain Jesse Ball’s second novel The Way through Doors have relied on a formula that has typically answered quite well: they’ve begun at the beginning. Yet that reasonable enough strategy does not do justice to this strange, shifting, multi-layered, at times irritating, at times transcendent work.

I say we ought to begin, rather, at the center, and work outwards. A beautiful Russian empress, snubbed by her beloved count, sets about systematically dismantling his happy life. For her last vindictive act, she organizes a strange and horrifying parade of “misshapen and frightening folk…dwarves and giants, beasts and patch-skinned dogs” to accompany the forced marriage – a public spectacle complete with lepers and fire – of the count to Kolya, the ugliest of women. The newlyweds are led to an ice palace where the consummation of their marriage is likewise displayed for all to see. Once the humiliations have ceased and the couple is alone, the count and the ugliest of women converse tenderly, speaking of a book both have read, which “constructed architectures, impossible places, dreams of impossible places”:

Of these [says Kolya] a needle, larger than the tallest house, stabbed down into the sand at the sea’s edge. It rises from the sand only enough for a single plank, a walkway, to run out from its center. This plank runs out across the sea, inches above the shuddering waves. It runs for miles, and a curious thing begins to happen as the walkway tends farther and farther from the shore.

– I have read this book, said the count. Beneath the plank, the sea begins to fall away, and the plank becomes steeper and steeper, and harder to climb. Miles pass in this way. Finally, there begin to be handholds, and footholds, ladder rungs in the plank…. At the top, one finds that one has reached another needle, this sunk into an island so far offshore from the first needle that it was not visible…

– It is so lovely, said Kolya, how then there is another ladder, down along the side of the needle. One proceeds to the island of the anchored needle, where a small cabin sits, and someone is waiting with a bit of lunch and a pot of tea. Someone kind whom you have known a very long while. She comes to the door and plain upon her face is her joy at your arrival.

This exchange marks the point at which a series of stories within stories comes to the deepest story embedded in the stack, and here it pauses to turn around and study itself. The count relates another episode in the book of which he and Kolya have been speaking: “And all the while…someone murmuring, Who can say therefore where a certain person is, for what is it that anchors a person? Is it their place in the story to which you are a part? Many stories hereabouts run side by side, and you cannot be at pains to unpin them, for they are sharp, and you will only sting the tips of your fingers.”

There are indeed many stories running side by side – and the tips of your fingers will experience existential stinging should you try to unravel them. For it isn’t clear until the middle of the book that the trails of stories comprising the first half of The Way through Doors actually have been running along parallel tracks. Now they intertwine in the count’s and Kolya’s relation of the story, itself called World’s Fair 7 June 1978, which may itself be the unwritten story of the story of the stories. From this point onwards, please do not say you haven’t been warned.

But there in the count’s quote, too, lies one of the central questions of The Way through Doors: “Who can say therefore where a certain person is, for what is it that anchors a person?” The problem at the outset of the novel, and running all through it in a way, is the location of a particular person, or rather, of that person’s mind and identity The initial premise is this: young pamphleteer Selah Morse, newly hired as a municipal inspector at the odd Seventh Ministry, sees a young woman get hit by a taxi. She loses her memory. He escorts her to the hospital, pretends to be her boyfriend, gives her a name – Mora Klein – and brings her back to his flat, where he proceeds, as per doctor’s orders, to keep her awake for eighteen hours by telling her stories, so that she may try to recover her memory.  

Klein Bottle

Yet, while this storytelling would seem to be a framing device, it is not. The initial circumstances are broken up and scattered through Doors: they resurface at intervals, distorted, melting into the stories themselves, so that swimming within the various narratives is the story of Morse searching for Klein, trying and failing to recover a sense of her past. Morse begins by detailing the beginning of his employment, which leads into a story told by a Chinese woman about a young husband who unwisely wagers his wife in a bet, which then drifts into a story of Morse and a peculiar guess artist, which then … and then … and so forth, until the episode with the count and Kolya.

After their talk of the World’s Fair 7 June 1978, the count tells Kolya a dream that he had, in which he visits a friend and the friend’s wife on a country estate, and is walking on a fine day when,

I realized what had been lurking just beyond the edges of my comprehension: the things that people were saying to one another, the way that one action blended into another, the shifting times of day, and the pleasures of companionship, but most of all the dialogue: we were in a novel. There was no other explanation. No one spoke like this in ordinary life, picking up every inch of what had been said, and delivering it back with a twist and a nuance. It had not happened just once. I felt that each remark somehow carried with it the implication of all others previous. One felt very clearly a comprehending intelligence strung through the air, setting each new moment into motion. I wrested myself out of the necessity to do and say without decision, the leash that had accompanied my passage hitherto through the book that was all about me, and a further thought occurred to me: how could a person wander into a novel?

Such moments of meta-narrative, of the self-awareness of the text, have of course been performed elsewhere before, but what saves this instance is the answer to the question of how, indeed, a person could wander into a novel: “It must be a dream.” In his dream, the count explains to his friend that they are both in a dream; the friend refuses to believe him; the count leaves with a great sadness; and that story leaves us, twisting instead back to Morse’s search for Klein.

At this point, by most standards of logic, the resurfacing of the story of Morse’s search for Klein seems to occur within a dream, itself a story being told within another story being told by a character who is attempting to guess what yet another character is thinking, and so on back to the beginning of the story (we never do find out whether the guesser is correct), which is itself a relation of Morse’s search for Klein, in a way, as he casts about for some means of keeping her awake for eighteen hours. Incidentally, The Way through Doors certainly feels as though it might have been written in the space of a particularly feverish eighteen hours – that is both part of its charm and part of what is vexing to the logical mind. The unraveling-in-reverse of Morse’s story, from the midpoint with the count, back to the beginning of the novel, reveals nothing more or less than a set of stories within stories, and it certainly does little to prepare the reader for the more complex interweaving of plots in the second half of the novel; were there something to be gained from such an exercise, it might be comforting to this hypothetical logical mind, might say something about the ultimate order of the universe.

But most of us – even the most logical-minded of us – do not rely on novels to confirm the ultimate order of the universe. One simply expects order, and Ball denies it. This is not done maliciously, but the novel would almost be more persuasive if it were. Gone from The Way through Doors is the sense of ineffable malice pervading Ball’s earlier works, the novel Samedi the Deafness and the Plimpton-Prize-winning novella, The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr. That sense of deviousness drives those two works, tempers their moments of lightness so that, where there are excesses of seeming nonsense and disorder, they may be more easily forgiven. No such tempering in The Way through Doors, which is both a reasonable and problematic absence.

So Morse tells Klein stories to keep her from falling asleep, as a means of passively helping her recover her sense of identity. While the two are in the hospital near the beginning of the novel, a doctor makes the following suggestion to Morse: “It would be helpful for you to construct a book for her, detailing her past circumstances. Such memory aids can help patients regain what they’ve lost.”

The question then becomes: does what follows this book – this “memory aid” – in fact detail her past circumstances? In all likelihood, no, as Morse and Klein have only just met. However, all we know of Klein is what Morse tells us of her – and much of that is revealed in the second half of the novel, where, as I said, the boxes-within-boxes metaphor ceases to be meaningful and, in its place, something transdimensional feels more apt. In the second half of The Way through Doors, Morse becomes more urgent in his attempt to “find” Klein, joining forces with a guess-artist (one of Ball’s cleverer inventions here) who can, with 33 and 1/3 percent accuracy, guess what a given person is thinking about at a given time. A young Japanese couple (June and Takashi Kawagata) encounters the guess artist, for example, and he says

–You are both thinking the same thing…. You are wondering whether the sun will ever go down, since you have been traveling now for six years on airplanes, staying ahead of the sun, and you have finally decided today to let yourselves see a sunset.

–That’s not true, said June. I design robots for use in private industry. We have an apartment on the West side.

–Okay, said the guess artist. Three chances, right?

–Okay, said June. Shoot.

–You’re thinking about the cat you had when you were a child. There was one spot on its fur, to the left of its tail, which would never sit smoothly. The fur always stuck up. Somehow you thought that because the fur was always sticking up there, the world could never reward anyone with exactly what they wanted. This belief was for a long time unconscious in your head, but earlier today you realized why you believe what you believe. Furthermore, now you feel that it is certainly true. The cat died when you were nine. It is buried by the gate of your parents’ house in Tensshu.

–What is the cat’s name? asked June.

–You are being very careful not to think of the cat’s name, said the guess artist.

Then his expression changed. He looked at Takashi.

–The cat’s name was Octopus.

June gave Takashi a withering look.

–Don’t you have any self-control? she asked.

Takashi shrugged.

June looked at the guess artist.

–You’re pretty good, she said.

Through a series of fleeting encounters like this scattered throughout The Way though Doors, the guess artist – apparently a feature of Morse’s story to Klein – becomes one of the more real characters in the novel. Likewise, Morse’s construction of Klein within the story (within the story within the story…and then out again through the rabbit hole) is more real than the glance we have of her (whomever she actually is) at the novel’s beginning. It isn’t so much that Ball is utilizing the rather shopworn conceit about the impossibility of defining “true” identity; the message is more diffuse than that. Rather, though the restless taking-up and casting-off of various narratives, what becomes clear is that the one “true” idea is of the desire for connection. Here stories begin, but they do not meet their endings, save for the ending in which Morse finally finds Klein. His search for her, constructed as it is of his own imagination, is both touching and the only really unbroken thread in The Way through Doors.

There are difficulties along the way, however. A few things that are more maddening than they are useful to this novel:

1. This book lacks page numbers; instead the paragraphs are numbered.
2. There are several large black dots at various points in the text.
3. There are also many odd sketches.

As for the first, Ball is emulating the ancient tradition of numbering the paragraphs of texts. The most generous interpretation is that it’s a gesture to his work as a poet, although it strikes the reader as a rather presumptuous eye to posterity. As for the second, I cannot speculate; Samedi The Deafness was similarly peppered with images of garden-shears to no discernable effect (save passing confusion).

As for the pictures – little inscrutable sketches – they seem to be intended to illustrate certain points. For example, one such sketch apparently illustrates a woman grabbing a man’s ear, but if you saw it in isolation you would think no such thing (rather it looks like a piece of chalk collapsing upon the number “4”). Klein herself is meant to have created some of the sketches, all of which are meant to be the same sketch (a sort of shell containing small houses) but not all of which are actually the same. The deeper meaning here is at best elusive and at worst obfuscating. The sketches, and the narrative wanderings they represent, constantly distance the reader from the task at hand, the search for Klein.

A sketch from Jesse Ball’s website, www.jesseball.com

But! Dwelling overlong on this last point would destroy what is ultimately so lovely and mysterious about both Samedi the Deafness and The Way through Doors. (The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr represents, on the other hand, what wonders a deft hand at tightening might have done for the novels: it is nearly flawless in its execution, it is tragic and ridiculous and plaintive, and it sacrifices none of the bizarre wit of his longer works.) Ball’s self-fascinated waggishness in The Way through Doors can try the reader’s patience, particularly in final third of the book, which tracks the misadventures of Morse and the guess artist down what seems at first but turns out later perhaps not to be an enormous underground staircase to be welcomed by what seems at first but turns out later perhaps not to be a family living in a vast subterranean field – and then back to an inn via a sort of teleportation, where they crack open fiddles to find hidden messages, and it goes on in this way. Morse’s desire to “find” Klein becomes more urgent just as the narrative itself begins to resist any sort of forward motion.

Lost in that switchbackery I began to feel a vague sort of resentment, as though I was being in some way duped. At this point in Doors, the clustering of stories-inside-stories gets submerged under the overarching narrative; any side-steps to other smaller narratives are always complete in and of themselves so that Morse and the guess artist may continue in their quest. Evaporated is the slippery charm of the first half of the book, in which one plot bleeds into the next and narrators flow and succeed each other with the ease and grace of ocean waves. In its place are a halting and rather self-indulgent run of riddles like spun sugar: they are interesting to experience, they may taste pleasant in the moment, but too much and they begin to cloy, and they hold no nutritional value whatsoever.

Which struggles, perhaps, a reader must go through in order to better appreciate the last handful of pages in The Way through Doors. As when Morse finally returns to his offices and Rita – the message girl at the Seventh Ministry – breathes into his ear the beginnings of the final story of Doors:

We laughed when we were told that we would one day lose our skin and become piles of bones that had no laughter in them. And we knew too that this was a lie, for once a thing has happened once, it cannot be stopped from happening again and again. Events are continuous, not broken, and they never move on. Stories tell themselves to one another, over and over, never ceasing, and we skip here and there, saying that this is consciousness, this acrobatic feat, but what of remaining? What of the story of a stone in a field that is a stone and stays upon an evening when there will be rain but there is not yet, and the last moment of redness is paused about the tiny cloud that lingers on the sketched sky?

Here you have the author at his version of the sublime, a marvel the elegance of which is thrown into relief by the follies of the past several pages. Rita here presses upon another underlying desire in The Way through Doors, that of trying to capture the very act of relating such a complex narrative as the novel itself presents. If Ball drops one strand, it is deliberate, a way of saying that what seems to be movement (from one plot to the next) is instead the act of standing still and selecting what you will see, hear, or understand, and what you will not. What is missing from The Way through Doors is what Rita lingers over at the end of the quote, for there is no remaining within the novel itself – there is only ever the reader who remains, and the events and stories which continue.

From here Morse and Klein find one another and the book ends on a haunting note. As with a Klein bottle, here we are tossed outwards onto something that will turn back inwards on itself – for we never actually reach again the “real” circumstances at the beginning of The Way through Doors: this final portion of the book, including the reunion of the lovers, is itself narrated by Rita, whose story is being told by someone else, and so on. The framing device is in this sense something of a red herring. The last and loveliest bit of The Way through Doors is itself a story folded into a story.

Lianne Habinek is a PhD candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about literary metaphor and 17th-century neuroscience.

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