four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
By: 
Jesse Ball
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A-The Way Through DoorsJesse Ball, an American poet, novelist, and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, received the Paris Review’s 2008 Plimpton Prize, and his first novel, Samedi the Deafness, was published in 2007. Here, he takes his experimental fiction one step further.

The Story: Selah Morse, an artist who makes pamphlets, takes a job as a municipal inspector, which allows him to exert his authority over nothing and everything in a city that resembles New York. A few months later, Selah witnesses a taxi striking a woman; he poses as her boyfriend and takes her to the hospital. Because her memory has vanished, he regales her, Scheherazade-style, with the stories that comprise this novel in order to keep her awake and alive. The tale’s framework involves a municipal inspector searching for an elusive girl, but the fairy tale, Alice-in-Wonderland stories that follow take on dreamlike qualities that speak of identity, quest, and, ultimately, hope.
Vintage. 240 pages. $13.95. ISBN: 0307387461

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Readers unfamiliar with him are in for a treat, for there seems to be no other novelist writing today who is capable of so thoroughly disarming one’s narrative expectations. … This book leaves one awestruck and the unique artistry of its author seems to stand as a paean to the generative, storytelling imagination." Ethan Rutherford

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] twisting eel of a tale, a strange and sinuous ooze of sentences that spins and dips and—just when you think you’ve gotten a firm grip on the thing—squirts out of your grasp after all, like a receding piece of a half-remembered incident fetched up from a deep sleep. … And yet there is an uncanny logic to The Way Through Doors as well." Julia Keller

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Jesse Ball’s The Way Through Doors is a lovely, unpretentious little thing—about as promising and sweet as a second novel can be. … Too often, I feel that experimental novelists are shirking their artistic duty. I never feel this way about Ball." Laurel Maury

New Yorker 4 of 5 Stars
"His stories dissolve, unfinished, into other stories. … It’s a thrilling ride through an alternative New York (think Steven Millhauser on acid), where the tallest building extends hundreds of feet below ground and cabbies are paid in gold doubloons."

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"A delightful prose experiment … The Way Through Doors plays with plot and language with an ease and skillfulness we don’t often find. … I don’t mean to suggest that Ball’s book is at all derivative, but, rather, that as he moves his story along, he conjures up a tradition of surreal playfulness on the serious theme of the search for identity and the quest for romance." Alan Cheuse

Critical Summary

Critics described The Way Through Doors as experimental fiction at its very finest. Loath to pigeonhole the novel, some nonetheless compared aspects of it to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Paul Auster’s New York trilogy, and novels by Franz Kafka and Kazuo Ishiguro. Certainly, the work is disorienting as it plays with time, geography, and character—from a Russian empress to princes to bureaucrats to a "guest artist" who reads minds. At times, the novel is perhaps too whimsical for mainstream tastes. But that reviewers were not bothered that they couldn’t summarize the plot (and that they did not criticize the author’s self-conscious construct) testifies to this novel’s power. "Ball is a talented new writer whom we ought to watch," concludes the San Francisco Chronicle. "There is no other explanation."