The unnamed narrator of this novel by Jesse Ball is a retired surgeon and a widower who has just received a diagnosis of a terminal illness. He decides to spend his last months? weeks? traveling across the country as a census taker, bringing with him his son, who has Down syndrome. He never gives a clear reason for why this seems like a good course of action, but he dances around the topic in passages like this:
Most of all it was my son who prepared me for this work, my son who showed me, not in speech, but in his daily way, that we are by our own nature a kind of measure, that we are measuring each other at every moment. This was the census he began at birth, that he continues even now. It was his census that led into ours, into our taking of the census, our travel north.
As it turns out, the census in this novel is not exactly our contemporary version of the census. The book is set in an imagined future? past? in which the census is mandated and those who are counted in each census are tattooed to prove they’ve been recorded. The narrator, however, doesn’t bother approaching everyone or even asking all the questions on the form. Instead, he uses the time to travel and listen and observe and reflect on the people, places, and events that seem salient to him.
This is an odd book, without much of a story and no clear message that I could wrap my head around. Ball says in the introduction that he wrote it as a way of dealing with the death of his 24-year-old brother, who had Down syndrome. The book’s narrator thinks a fair bit about how his son perceives life and how having him changed his and his wife’s life. But this is not particularly a book about being close to someone with Down syndrome. If anything, I suppose it’s about how we measure out our lives and our selves.
Although I’m sometimes impatient with contemplative books like this, I ended up liking this pretty well. I appreciated a lot of what he had to say about the value of examining our lives, and the ending is extremely moving. If the book were much longer, I probably would have lost patience with it, but the 250-page length (with lots of black pages) ended up being about right.