Census
  • March 12, 2019

    Opening Round

  • Jesse Ball

    2Census
    v.
    3The Golden State

    Lydia Kiesling

  • Judged by

    Molly Fischer

The Golden State

When I think about the difference between these two books, I think of string cheese.

Molly Fischer is a senior editor at The Cut and host of The Cut on Tuesdays podcast. Her writing has appeared in New York Magazine, Bookforum, n+1, and elsewhere. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “I think my only conflict is Keith Gessen, whom I’ve viewed as a kind mentor-figure since my internship at n+1. Rooting for him in the play-in round!”

Census and The Golden State are novels that set out from (in broad strokes) a shared premise: a single parent, on the road with a child, driving north. The father who narrates Census and the mother who narrates The Golden State reach the ends of their respective ropes and leave home. They have destinations in mind, but only hazy plans. The forces that propel them are at once inexorable and inexplicable. These are road trips but not fun ones—they are bleak, fueled by inchoate desperation, undertaken in bargelike sedans.

Along their way, the father and son in Census receive sustenance like cider, maple sugar candy, freshly baked bread, and a persimmon. But, really, we don’t hear all that often about what they eat. The mother and baby daughter in The Golden State, meanwhile, eat in exhaustive detail—and often, they eat string cheese. String cheese is hoarded, lamented, a great Costco bounty in the rearview mirror when they leave home without plans to return. It is doled out to maintain order, to forestall misbehavior, to check the box of yet another meal. It is barfed upon a carseat. You could measure out a life with string cheeses, and The Golden State does. Its roadside food options tend not to include rustic minimalism in the vein of fresh bread and persimmons.

Daphne, the mother in The Golden State, is an administrator at a Bay Area university, where she receives generous pay and excellent health insurance. Her husband, a Turkish citizen, lost his visa and has spent months abroad in bureaucratic limbo—all thanks to a “click-of-the-mouse error,” in the words of one bureaucrat. This leaves Daphne alone in San Francisco with their daughter. After several months, with no end in sight, she decides the time has come. She packs the car, picks the baby up from daycare, and sets out for her inheritance: a double-wide mobile home in the high desert of California’s far north, left by Daphne’s grandparents to her mother and by her mother to her. The pretext for the trip (“checking on the house”) holds up to scrutiny at the level of small talk but not much further, especially as their sojourn stretches on.

The Golden State takes place in the recognizable world of contemporary realism; Census, spare and gnomic, more in the realm of fable. Its unnamed narrator is an elderly widower whose grown son has Down syndrome. The father has learned he will soon die, and wants to spend his remaining time on the road with his son. He enlists as a census taker. This involves traveling through a series of towns identified only by ascending letters of the alphabet, visiting the homes of residents to administer a designated tattoo. “You must consider yourself a sort of archaeologist, a scientist, an artist, a priest,” explains the government official who instructs him in his new work. “But you must add to those professions a strong dose of that immemorial office: the vagrant fool.”

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $5 and Field Notes will donate 100% of the proceeds to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

Census is dedicated to Ball’s brother Abram, who had Down syndrome and died young; his memory is the kernel of the story Ball tells. “What is in my heart when I consider him is something so tremendous, so full of light, that I thought I must write a book that helps people see what it is like to know and love a Down syndrome boy or girl,” Ball writes in a preface. As a child, he imagined a future in which he cared for his brother, a relationship he foresaw as “very similar to that of a father and a son.” In writing about his brother, Ball’s strategy was to “make a book that was hollow,” he explains. He would place his brother at the center of the book, as the son, and “write around him for the most part.”

Described this way, the approach sounds either inventive or like a cop-out, depending on the reader’s generosity. My generosity waned as I progressed. In practice, the blankness of the son is scarcely distinct from the blankness of the narrator himself, or the blankness of the citizens he tattoos. In their somber blankness, they blur. And as a vision of parenthood, this one—imagined from the vantage of childhood—feels a bit idealized, somewhat flat. It does not admit the kind of queasy intimacy that The Golden State conjures in moments like this: Daphne, wrestling a fussy baby into clothes: “I gripped her arms tightly, too tightly, arriving at a threshold of tightness that felt dangerous but obscurely good in a way I wouldn’t care to investigate further.”

Census favors a vaguely archaic register (e.g. “He was glad of it, and pleased”), and his narrator’s account of the world has a bloodlessness that seems notable from coming from a man who we learn was once a surgeon. For a book about parenthood, death, and tattoos, Census struck me as oddly uninterested in the reality of human bodies—or in any of the feelings they might inspire. As I dutifully followed the census-taker on his journey, I got hung up on the action at the heart of his office: the actual tattooing. It’s happening on the ribs, a famously painful place to get tattooed, and also one that means we aren’t just talking about a rolled-up sleeve; these people are opening their dresses, taking off their shirts. They’re doing this in front of their families, in front of a stranger and his son. What a strange, vulnerable, potentially uncomfortable, potentially humiliating, seemingly delicate encounter! It’s never particularly rendered as such. The people pretty much just take off their clothes and take their tattoos in stride.

Meanwhile, a sharp attention to physical reality is what gives The Golden State its strange momentum. Nerve endings meet matter in a way that’s both ordinary and overwhelming. The caregiving activities that carry Daphne through her days become hypnotic; tasks tumble into one another in unpunctuated litanies of obligation. She lives increasingly in a permanent present tense, her abandoned job and far-off husband dissolving into unreality whenever cell service cuts out. And I found myself carried along with her, accepting Daphne’s choices even as they grow harder to explain: picking up an elderly stranger at first identified only as “the crone,” helping the crone on her mysterious mission. The Golden State manages to arrive somewhere with fairy-tale logic, having lured you on a realist road trip.

But a fairy-tale affect does Census no favors. A bureaucracy that shrugs off its actions as click-of-the-mouse errors is scarier than one that asks amateur tattoo artists to regard themselves as artists and as priests. The Golden State wins.

TODAY’S WINNER: The Golden State

The Rooster needs your help

 

Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Kevin Guilfoile: John, you know I am a Jesse Ball fanboy. (It’s weird that he and I are both Chicago writers and I’ve never actually met him in person. I think we might have traded emails about something years ago.) Of all the literary isms, the existential one is probably my favorite, and Ball knows just how to scratch the Sartre-pital area right behind my ear.

John Warner: He’s got a gift for hook-y premises that he doesn’t develop linearly so much as by going deeper and deeper from the jumping-off point. His novels are almost an interrogation of the premise to head towards meaning. It’s a satisfying itch to scratch.

Kevin: Judge Fischer couldn’t quite get past the fact that the characters don’t always respond to the action in Census (to the tattooing for example) in ways that are realistic or logical. That’s part of the existential unease that these novels intend to infect you with. Still it’s a legitimate critical perspective. Sometimes a reader just can’t meet the author halfway, and that explains why Judge Fischer prefers the detail and realism of The Golden State—for instance, the specificity with which characters’ meals are described. (I am reminded of a critic who once dismissed an entire novel of mine by asserting that I was “the kind of writer who feels obligated to tell you, when two people are eating dinner, that one of them has ordered butternut squash ravioli.” If only Judge Fischer had been assigned to write that review.)

My reservations about Census were almost the inverse of Judge Fischer’s. She mentions the preface in which Ball outlines his purpose in writing this particular story. He explains that he grew up with a brother who had Down syndrome and he was motivated to write a novel that showed, in part, what it was like to love someone with that disorder. It was moving. At the same time, however, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it as a reader. One of the things I love about Ball’s books is getting lost in these Escher-like worlds where I don’t always have my bearings. Feeling that anxiety is kind of the point of reading this kind of literature—I mean, you get on the roller coaster because you want to feel your stomach drop, right? I wasn’t sure I wanted Ball to give me any sort of compass for the journey he was about to take me on.

Long story short. The last 15 to 20 pages of Census are a gut punch. And they are followed by a bookend to the preface: about a dozen pages of grainy photos of Ball’s brother and the rest of his family. And I just lost it. I started to cry. It worked on me, and it’s hard for me to even tell you how it worked, which means it’s another successful Jesse Ball novel.

John: I didn’t get around to reading Census, and full confession, I wasn’t going to read The Golden State, despite being a fan of Lydia Kiesling from her writing at The Millions, because based on the premise, it didn’t seem like something for me, a married, childless guy knocking on 50 years old.

I ended up giving it one of my year-end Biblioracle awards dubbing it the “Most Mesmerizing Book of the Year.” I called it “hypnotic,” just like Judge Fischer, which is still the best description I can muster of the book’s effect on me. The writing teacher in me would like to dig in and do a close analysis of how the book manages to achieve the deep interiority of Daphne’s world. The prose isn’t showy, and many scenes are rendered in pretty matter-of-fact tones, but the accrual of detail, the marching of the days had me in its grip like a thriller.

I was white-knuckling the book during the novel’s climax. As I said, I would like to dig in and figure out how The Golden State pulled this off, but I’m not going to because sometimes I just prefer the magic trick to exist without me knowing the hidden bits.

Don’t judge a book by its premise, kids, you never know what surprises you may be in for.

Kevin: Everything you and Judge Fischer say about The Golden State is true. It’s a wonderful book. The “day-by-day” structure organizes the story in a way that allows her to examine and describe the world with fantastic precision.

Most authors will manipulate their way around parenthood. The truth is fictional kids are a real-life pain in the ass for any author who’s trying to get a plot going. Children take up so much of a parent’s attention that it’s incredibly difficult to have a character be a realistic parent and also infiltrate a heroin cartel or whatever. So a lot of writers will make their protagonists childless, or their children will just conveniently disappear for chapters at a time, off with a nanny or relative. Children and cell phones are the bane of an author’s outline. It can be no accident that one of my favorite novels of the year, Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, is set in the pre-smartphone ‘90s and the first thing the main character does is abandon her family.

The Golden State’s depiction of parenting, on the other hand, is startlingly realistic. Honey is hardly ever more than an arm’s length from Daphne, and rather than being an impediment to the story, the amount of attention and care needed to keep Honey alive and safe is like the constant low hum in the movie Aliens—a persistent source of quiet tension throughout the book. The dirty and joyous details of parenthood (and specifically motherhood) are described so vividly and accurately that I smiled repeatedly at the weight of a wet diaper, or the regular intervals with which calm is maintained with cheese and the broken halves of a board book, or the chaos of a cranky toddler tantrum, all of which The Golden State gets exactly right.

Which of these books is better? Of course, that’s a matter of preference. Still, I might have chosen the same way Judge Fischer did.

John: And you’ve convinced me to double-back and read Census. Who knows, it might return as a Zombie.

Halfway through the opening round already, and tomorrow we look forward to an interesting matchup between My Sister, the Serial Killer and The Overstory. Can a sly novel that defies easy categorization and really does feature a serial-killing sister take down an opus on humans and nature?

 

2019 Tournament of Books Merch

New 2019 Tournament of Books merch is now available at the TMN Store. As a reminder, Sustaining Members receive 50 percent off everything in our store. To find out why we're asking for your support and how you can become a Sustaining Member, please visit our Membership page. Thank you.

 

Welcome to the Commentariat

Population: You

To keep our comments section as inclusive as possible for the book-loving public, please follow the guidelines below. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate or abusive comments, such as ad hominem attacks. We ban users who repeatedly post inappropriate comments.

  • Criticize ideas, not people. Divisiveness can be a result of debates over things we truly care about; err on the side of being generous. Let’s talk and debate and gnash our book-chewing teeth with love and respect for the Rooster community, judges, authors, commentators, and commenters alike.
  • If you’re uninterested in a line of discussion from an individual user, you can privately block them within Disqus to hide their comments (though they’ll still see your posts).
  • While it’s not required, you can use the Disqus tag to hide book details that may spoil the reading experience for others, e.g., “Dumbledore dies.”
  • We all feel passionately about fiction, but “you’re an idiot if you loved/hated this book that I hated/loved“ isn't an argument—it’s just rude. Take a breath.
blog comments powered by Disqus