Jesse Ball’s 2018 novel Census at first seems determined to use the title’s subject—an official count of the citizens throughout an unnamed land—as mere background. Ball’s nameless narrator works as a census taker, but feels little urgency about the task, approaching it half-heartedly, without the passion we might expect from the protagonist of a dystopian novel. Although one goal of a census is to arrive at an unambiguous population count, the narrator says early on that “there are no definite answers in work like this. We go where we can, do what we can, and ensure our strength is kept up.” If a census is information-gathering, our hero is solely focused on the “gathering” portion, in the connections he can make with people along the way.
It’s hard to blame him, given the circumstances. Ball’s narrator decides to become a census taker because he’s been diagnosed with a fatal disease, and, as a former doctor, he knows he approaches his last days. Before he dies, the narrator wants to spend time with his grown son and plans to travel with him until his health gives out. Then, he will send his son back to a neighbor who has agreed to care for him after the census taker cannot.
Ball opens the novel with his narrator digging his own grave and returns us to that scene as it concludes. In between, he travels with his son in a noisy car across regions “A” to “Z” of what seems to have once been the United States, “a sort of industrial hell interspersed with bands of what might be called wilderness.” The narrator feels sure they won’t sneak up on anyone, so the citizens they encounter can duck being counted and avoid the obligatory tattoo he must ink onto each of them. Few along the way refuse, however, as they, like the narrator, seem to long for connection, to be seen and heard and known. But the unease or even antipathy some show creates the impression that a few of those other census takers/tattooists may have taken more than stories or become sacrifices themselves, in line with the instructions given to all census takers: “Never expect help from anyone. There is no help for you.” Soon, the census taker reports that he’s having nightmares, suffused with the belief that “there was something in wait for us, an awful end, an end we ourselves should have expected.” Yet they journey on.
Little time is spent explaining why the adult son, also unnamed, will need a caretaker, because the reason is clear from the first pages: he has Down syndrome. Accurately portrayed are the moments familiar to anyone who presents as different from the norm: characters shy away from, stare at, or harass the son. “How can this enormous conspiracy exist,” the narrator wonders, “where everyone has agreed ahead of time that it is completely all right to be hurtful to these harmless people who hurt no one?” It’s a relief when a few citizens they encounter on their trip react with kindness, mirroring the encompassing love the narrator feels so keenly, and which Ball writes so well. As he nears his own end, the narrator is plagued by questions about his son’s future—“I thought of the place he would die, perhaps a mattress, perhaps a stairwell”—but also of the happiness his son has brought him, remembering bittersweetly a time he glimpsed him playing with a friend, “my son leaping and leaping in front of her, he too flushed and joyed, and the sensation in my body of all the years we would have together.”
In a preface, Ball tells readers about his brother, Abram Ball, who had Down syndrome and died in 1998 at the age of twenty-four. He writes that he wants to capture something of Abram in the book, and help people “see what it is like to know and love a Down syndrome boy or girl.” In order to do so, Ball realized he should “make a book that was hollow” and place the character who has Down syndrome in the middle to “write around him for the most part.” The father has long realized and accepted his inability to truly know his son, to understand how he thinks and perceives. The boy is unknowable, but not unlovable. The book concludes with fourteen uncaptioned photographs of Abram, Jesse, and their family, providing a silent, moving witness to Abram’s life.
The hollow core Ball describes is the most remarkable aspect of the novel. Every writerly choice Ball makes furthers this sensation, from the first-person narration of the father, which never allows us to be inside the boy’s mind, to the omission of much of their conversation, to the frequency with which the boy is off-stage in the book, looked after by some helpful minor character or other. And the narrator speaks in summary, looking from that present ending moment at his grave back over the course of the trip, which further removes the boy from our direct understanding. The son is a cipher, although Ball offsets this by including details that resonate, as when they plan on what they’ll eat in the next town: “some kind of soup, a vegetable soup, and maybe a grilled cheese sandwich” for the narrator, while “my son had his heart set on a hamburger and after that perhaps some pie.” These glint like gold in a text that occasionally feels, as many road-trip novels do, like a rambling series of encounters with interesting-enough characters, passing the time until we reach the promised destination.
Ball’s depiction of the son is curious, and, at times, off-putting. The son does not coalesce into a distinct character, as a person with an inner life separate from anyone else’s. He is always an accessory to his father, another logical extension of the narrative choices. But Ball achieves his goal: he doesn’t promise a glimpse into the thoughts or feelings of a person with Down syndrome, but rather attempts to help readers understand what it is to know and love one.
And what of the census, that dreary business of counting and registering? It feels secondary in importance to the plot, a mechanism to keep the father and son traveling, to keep the setting changing around them, even when the father’s health begins to rapidly decline. Yet Ball is adept in keeping the census from becoming rote. Again and again, the father/narrator thinks about the task he’s undertaken and wonders about its worth. For him, the census’s purpose is left uncertain. Does the government merely wish to know the precise population of each region, a reasonable goal at any time, but especially in a land such as this one, where manufacturing has apparently disappeared and societal norms have begun to break down? Or is a more nefarious scheme at work, one that shivers across the book every time the narrator carefully tattoos another obliging person? After all, a census is not merely a count, but a registration, and that information, once collected, can be ill-used.
The narrator mentions that this is a new kind of census, “an objection to the formal aspects of the previous method.” Now, he says, the census takers can “decide what information to look for.” It’s left unclear whether this is part of the edict from the census bureau, or the narrator’s decision to take a more personal approach.
Ball’s narrator, a good man, would not exploit being a census taker, which limits the plot, another proof that Ball’s not interested in the story of a census gone bad. But even the hint that there’s an unexplored side to census-taking is unnerving. What happens when census takers are allowed to decide what to look for? The narrator says he will, as he calls it, “misbehave” and “go into each house and home, each town and village, and try to discover what was worthy of note.” A more benign purpose could hardly be stated, in keeping with the narrator’s gentle approach to life, parenting, and his own imminent death.
But what about actual misbehavior, like the real-life governmental figures in the U.S. who demanded to add a question about respondents’ citizenship to our census? The mildness of the question hid its bite, as political strategists had designed it to frighten respondents who might be undocumented into refusing to be counted at all. Last summer, faced with overwhelming evidence of the racism that motivated the question, the Supreme Court ordered it struck from the 2020 census.
Misbehaving census takers seem less whimsical in light of the “citizenship question.” A census cannot rely on the goodness of the people gathering information. Some people are reasonably afraid to be counted or registered. And here is where the two threads of the novel, Ball’s stated intention with the son, and his depiction of a continually census-taking world, fold in on each other. The federal census is not pointless, perhaps, but meaningless, a mere vehicle that has purpose brought into it by the enumerators. Being a census taker provides both the rigidity of a task and the fluidity to allow a personal quest, like that of a dying man who wishes to review and explain what has formed the love in his life. It’s hard not to imagine similar scenes of injected meaning in the 2020 U.S. census, as the recited facts force people to confront their emotion. The humanity breaks through the count.
At the end of the novel, the narrator puts his son on a train, heartbreakingly parting from him forever. Before he does so, though, he remembers a time when his son called to him, then walked through the house to his father’s home office, wanting his father to come and see a new way he’d learned to swing his wooden sword. “A part of me is, I think, still there behind that door, full of joy, listening to his approach,” the narrator says.
These moments, saturated in love, are what we need to count, Ball seems to say. He has crafted a world that is a census less of citizens and more the result of his desire to make a particular love in his life accessible to his readers. We should tally these experiences, he says. We ought to remember them. They should be registered within us as a census worth taking.
Census. By Jesse Ball. New York: Ecco, 2018. 272 pp. $25.99.