American author Jesse Ball returns to a more metaphorical and contemplative mode after the more naturalistic and confronting How to Set a Fire and Why. Census, as the foreword explains, is a book written for Ball’s brother, who had Down’s Syndrome and lived to 24. Census reimagines their relationship and in doing so explores the way the world related to his brother.
The man has just found out that he is dying. His wife has already died and their son is in a home. The man was a surgeon but he has decided to throw his former life in and join the Census. This is not a census as we know it. The man’s job is to traverse the county and interrogate every member of the populace. Each person he adds to the census receives a small tattoo on their ribs to prove they have participated. He takes his son with him on the journey, knowing that this is the last chance they will have to be together before he dies.
Census is a Kafkaesque roadtrip charting their journey north through a series of anonymous towns. From the metropolitan centre of A through increasingly small, cold and desolate towns progressing through the alphabet. As they progress, the two spend time with the inhabitants of the places they visit, learning about their lives and in turn about their own. Ball observes, through these encounters, the way in which people react to and interact with the boy.
Prior to their marriage, the man’s wife was a famous clown, but not a clown in the traditional sense of the word. Their relationship, and her particular, almost surreal form of art are reflected in the memories of the people they meet.
Census is a beautiful, dream-like, elegiac novel. Ball focuses on the minutiae of people’s lives, bringing out the beauty in both the ordinary and the extraordinary. Sometimes overly poetic, often deeply moving, Census is a book that manages in its wandering to penetrate straight to the heart.