Jesse Ball’s third and latest novel, The Curfew, is an exercise in the perplexing. It’s a short, minimalist read that, in clocking in at less than 200 pages, can be absorbed in one sitting. Yet, the novel mixes humour and pathos in equal measure, and resembles the absurdities found in the fiction of Kafka and the plays of Samuel Beckett – giving the novel a bit of darkly comic richness. It’s a strange, unsettling read, one that lingers with you.
However, it is by turns confusing and truncated, and is quite baffling in its own special way. In all, The Curfew has the germ of a great idea, but it is cut down by its own brevity, leaving the reader to wonder what it is that they’ve just read.
The story, in a nutshell, is set in the city of C (presumably a stand-in for Ball’s home of Chicago) in some dystopian future where music and anything fun have been outlawed, secret police patrol the streets in plainclothes, and people get shot at for seemingly no reason at all. And, yes, there is an undefined curfew, one that leads people to simply vanish, and because nobody really knows when it begins and ends, the smart ones pretty much stay indoors once the sun begins to set.
Immersed in this environment are one William Drysdale, a 29-year-old former violinist who now works as an “epitaphorist”, or someone who writes gravestone epitaphs, and his mute eight-year-old daughter, Molly. William’s wife is not in the picture, having disappeared (or so it would seem) a few years before. However, when William gets information that might lead him to learn what happened to his wife, he ventures out in the darkness of the post-curfew hours, putting his very life in jeopardy. He leaves his young daughter with the next-door neighbours, who happen to have a hidden knack for putting on puppet shows in a theatre that are magical in nature as the puppets take on life-like characteristics of their own.
The novel is split into three parts: the first summarizes William meeting up with people who need epitaphs written for their loved ones; the second chronicles his adventures post-curfew and; the third fills in the back-story through a puppet show staged for Molly. The first part is the most engaging, warm and funny as William goes about his business, using only one pencil for each person’s scripted remembrances of their loved ones, which are more or less written by the clients themselves – a trait that leads the reader to wonder if originality and creativity have been stomped dead in this new world order.
William comes off as a bumbling post-modern day version of Charlie Chaplin as he is dressed “in a long tweed coat, with a stick under his arm, with a bowler hat and a pair of sturdy black shoes.” There is dark absurdist humour to be found in this section, as Ball deftly mixes the comic and tragic in equal measure. At the start of the story, we are provided with this image: “In the street beyond the window, it was very shady and pleasant”. The next sentence then reads: “An old woman was bleeding, hunched over a bench.” Ball certainly knows how to strike his reader in the gut with a twist of phrase.
However, there are a lot of unanswered questions in this novel. Ball writes early on that “I shall introduce this city and its occupants as a series of objects whose relationship cannot be told with any certainty.” In fact, there is very little that is certain in The Curfew, which ultimately ends up mystifying the reader.
Ball also changes vital information in his narrative, which makes the novel all the more puzzling. At first, we are told that William’s wife has vanished. Midway through the story, we are then told that she has been shot and is, indeed, dead. If that’s the case, it makes William’s venture into his night-time outing all the more bewildering, because he’s trying to solve a mystery that already seems to have been more or less solved. The third act also doesn’t really reveal anything that’s crucial to the plot, and seems to be a padded act of theatre that reminded me of the mediocre post-modern plays that I’ve sat through in university drama clubs.
All in all, The Curfew is one strange little book that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. Is it funny? Yes. Is it dark? Yes. Does it have anything to say about the strange times that we live in? Not really.
I honestly got the sense that The Curfew was more about the past than the present or future, as the story’s setting has the grimy feel of a European Jewish ghetto of ‘30s or ‘40s. The fate of its characters is also somewhat inconclusive, which leads the reader to feel that The Curfew is just a post-modern exercise in mere Dadaism. The Curfew is a breeze of a read to sift through, and seems to have something to say about the darkness of human nature in a collective sense, but that still won’t help you to realize, once you close the cover, just what on earth the story was about.