Jesse Ball
Rating: 6

I suppose my strongest criticism of Census is that there isn’t more of it. It’s a pretty slender little story, 240 or so pages, with many blank pages and many pages with one letter of the alphabet that takes up the entire page.

It’s a father-son road-trip meets Kafka kind of novella, the father is a widower who is near death, the son has Down’s syndrome. The father, for various reasons, has volunteered to be a census taker and is bringing his son with him, but the Census in the novel is not quite like the US Census.

I’ll start with the criticisms of the book, but it is mostly a good book; I’d recommend it cautiously, but not enthusiastically, for reasons I’ll explain below.

The novella has an interesting foreword, in which Ball explains that he wrote it in honor of his brother, who has Down’s syndrome, and in which he explained that the father-son framework seemed to be the best way to tell his story.

Given the centrality of Ball’s brother, and the son in the novella, one of my main problems with the book was the extent to which this key character played second-fiddle.

The entire story is told from the father’s first-person perspective, and, while much of the book concerns itself with the father’s impressions of the son, the son is a bit of a cypher. There is no character development to speak of. Which is kind of baffling, to me.

There is a formality to the book’s tone that I’m not sure always works in its favor. A stiffness. It reads at times like it’s standing at attention.

I personally would have liked to have seen Ball run a bit farther with the threads he was playing with; he was onto some good stuff, and I wanted him to keep digging. The book’s brevity, which I’m sure was a conscious decision, is a liability.

I didn’t find it to be a particularly visual novel. There were a few passages where a lack of descriptive detail gave me the sense that there was something dialed in about it.

All of the griping aside, there is a lot of good writing on the pages, and some good thinking. More than anything the book makes me curious about what he could do in a longer and more sustained novel.