In poet Jesse Ball’s second novel, The Way Through Doors, a municipal inspector named Selah Morse tries to keep awake a young woman named Mora Klein who has just been in a car accident and suffers amnesia by telling stories about gamblers and Russian empresses and sail makers and foxes and the world’s ugliest woman and the world’s tallest building that’s entirely underground. It is a labyrinth and precocious work of imagination, at times engaging and maddening, that attempts to mimic the way we tell and think about stories and how this relates to the haphazard workings of our mind and how we try to make sense of the world through our scrambled thoughts.
At times it is frustrating in the way the mind is maddening and the reader has to wait for the meaning to tease itself out over long seemingly pointless interludes. As Selah tells his stories, he repeatedly hits dead ends and turns back or pursues a stray narrative strand that separates itself from the starting point.
The connecting element is that Selah is trying to find Mora, who is locked or trapped or forgotten someplace. A bearded man tells Selah that he must pursue her down three separate paths. “The tale is never forward, but always round-about. Your young man must crowd the avenues in his search, and learn to cut doors through pages, through thoughts and guesses.”
These paths have Selah repeating himself with the same characters or similar characters including a guess artist, an inn where Mora seems to be locked on the second floor, the bearded man, a violin-playing dog, a couple that is compared to foxes, and a miniature town that may have been created by Mora (a drawing of it, enclosed in a leaf-like object is repeated throughout the text). It is only through this repetition of elements that patterns start to become clear. Both the author and Selah appear to be searching for meaning through these starts and stops and recalculated structures. “There is nothing so awful as a world that continues after it ought to have failed.”
At first, this is maddening. But Ball has an assured control over his material and his complicated structure, and the multiple stories being told are entertaining enough that I did not lose interest or want to give up on it as an aimless gambit.
However, there was a second element that I found irritating that I didn’t feel so charitable towards. Too often the text traffics in a clever and whimsical self-reference beloved by my young-ish generation, which uses wide-eyed wonder as shorthand for complexity. The characters frequently deliver little monologues about telling stories and how they are in a novel. As the Russian empresses and button cute girls and dogs playing violins pile on top of each other the fantastical starts to become childish. Too often the language is jauntily mannered in the style of a children’s books — the characters skip and strut and poke and clap their hands and say wonderful. In these precious moments I felt like I was reading an adaptation of David Lynch’s Inland Empire as sung by the Decembrists and art directed by Michel Gondry.
But I’m a little torn about simplifying much of what Ball is successful at by griping about his tonal aesthetics. There are writing tricks he uses that I mistakenly dismissed as unnecessary affectations. Ball marks the text not by page numbers but poetic lines, however they are not broken up into strict lines but into units of storytelling and when I paid attention to the marked breaks they revealed units of thoughts and beginning and endings that might not otherwise be obvious.
Towards the ends of the novel, the infantilizing of the texts overwhelms its more compelling elements. There is a malevolent undercurrent to the text that is hinted at but is never explored. Ball writes, “Men are the ones most likely to construct difficult and irrational traps, having as their purpose only to confound us.” Selah meets Mora at the start of the book. She steps out into the street and is hit by a car and he accompanies her to the hospital. When she wakes up and suffers amnesia he pretends to be her boyfriend, he is attracted to her, and in telling her the stories is attempting to incorporate himself into her life as he wasn’t there before.
The Way Through Doors echoes One Thousand and One Nights, with a similar framing device of someone trying to delay or prevent death by telling stories. But where Scheherazade was trying to save herself, Selah is saving Mora while also trying to take advantage of her condition to serve his own ends. In a treatise that Selah and the guess artist discover in a broken violin (don’t ask) is written, “we gain the power to speak lies, to say things that are not true and place them delicately into the minds of those we would conquer.”
This suggests a darker strain behind the storytelling impulse. But the unrelenting playfulness of Ball’s writing ends up diluting any tension the text may have. The reader can’t feel that Mora’s life is in any jeopardy or that the stories have any urgent purpose when the stories can skip wherever they want. We don’t get any clue as to who Selah may be as a person and why and from where he is producing these stories. Primarily there is no real sense that the stories are fragile, as our minds and thoughts are fragile and vulnerable to pain.
There is a world outside the mind with physical truths that cannot be ignored. When Ball’s novel loses that context it is in danger of whisking itself away on its fancy, like a strand of smoke, like a stray thought.