Jesse Ball (Photo: Joe Lieske)
Jesse Ball is an absurdist writer. His latest work, The Divers’ Game, set in a world much like our own, examines what happens when the lives of others are seen as disposable and small measures of kindness are largely absent. In other words, The Divers’ Game is a meditation on violence, longing, cruelty, pageantry, and joy. It’s made up of four sections, and filled with despair and stark beauty, written by one of the finest writers and humans I’ve had the great fortune to encounter in this frequently calamitous world.
I first met Jesse in Chicago in 2010. I was beginning graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he teaches, and I wanted to work with him. I remember we had meetings every other week in which we would sit in a conference room with corporate furniture. Each time, upon entering that sad little room, I felt as if I were visiting a wizened old monk at the top of an arduous hill. A couple months ago, when I proposed this conversation, I was hopeful we could meet to go bowling or gambling or shopping for artisanal hats, but owing to our different time zones, this interview was conducted by email.
Where are you right now?
In Shanghai. I am in a hotel in the city center. I’m seated in the dining area. It’s six A.M. No one but me has yet come down for breakfast. All the breakfast attendants are here, but other than that, I’m alone. They are all very busy and I am answering your questions on a small sheet of paper.
A man in a paper chef’s hat is very rapidly making a great pile of fried eggs. I am not sure when or whether he’ll stop. I have on my plate two slices of watermelon, some tofu, bitter melon, and a red bean roll. I was drinking tea but it’s all gone.
How and when did the writing of The Divers’ Game begin?
I wrote it in 2016, in February. I think that’s right. I had an idea about human festivals—that festivals could be the main character of a story and that they could demonstrate things about human behavior. The book turned out to be different from that, but festivals still loom large.
Can you elucidate for me your method of plain writing?
I try to write very simply and clearly about things that are not a matter of consensus. This can make the things that I write about seem strange and ambiguous, but I think that the nature of things is ambiguous, and that the way we as humans engage in groupthink tends to falsify the world.
I see The Divers’ Game as a cruel, necessary book. I believe that some readers will understand it as a critique of the contemporary political climate, especially in terms of the suffering this country has inflicted on immigrants, refugees, the incarcerated, and so on. Could you say something about this?
It is a critique of the contemporary political climate, but it is also a critique of the political climate ten years ago and ten years before that. We labor under tyrants. Sometimes we become tyrants ourselves. At present things look pretty grim. Some people like to look at the horrors of past centuries in order to paint a rosy picture of things today, but insofar as it is now possible for us to do better, and we are not doing better, things are quite bad. There is so much violence in the modern climate of reduced accountability—actions taken by millions of people simultaneously and trivially—that a different morality is needed in order for people to proceed in their day-to-day lives. If we ever needed Christian morality, and the answer to that is, I think that we never did (people could always be kind, whether Christian or no), then we do not need it now. People behaving generously in order to get a good deal later on in heaven is rather laughable, even if it is a swindle (no heaven). Why not instead behave to reduce the suffering of other living things without any reward but the life thus lived? And why not stop believing man is the center of the universe? That’s a small beginning.
The opening sections are situated in a train, a school, and a zoo. Why do these sites of human and nonhuman gathering tend to inspire both awe and terror?
I think they are both familiar and unfamiliar. That dissonance is a good basis for the descriptive comparison of the book.
Part two of The Divers’ Game opens with a young girl hiding, delightfully, in a cabinet. Later in the novel, a boy goes missing. This made me think of a quote by D. W. Winnicott: “It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found.” In your life, who or what has found you?
I am very surprised that I have managed to proceed in the way that I have. It seemed to me at every turn that someone would appear to stop me from doing what I was doing, but perhaps the things that I have done and do are too silly, too stupid, too meager for anyone to care to stop me doing them. Many of the things I think and feel I have thought and felt since I was a child. The person I was then and the things that I thought of, in the backyard of my parents’ house, for instance, continue to direct my behavior to this day. I think that I was driven into my own head through circumstances I do not fully understand, and that I have largely stayed there. This has made many of my decisions puzzling, both to myself and to others.
Why do you suppose people obsess over how long it takes one such as yourself to write a good book?
I think it is unfortunate that in the United States reviews are rarely about the content of a book, rarely about the ideas expressed, but rather about idiotic questions of valuation, for instance, whether a book is “good” or not, by which the reviewers generally mean whether it is easy to swallow said book and continue to consume banal U.S. media with the same insatiable cola-drinking thirst as before. I would prefer that the social content of books (the books of others as well as my own) were spoken about, debated, discussed. Silence Once Begun, for instance, which is a denunciation of the practice of using confession as a legal tool, has never been considered as such. To many people it is a bizarre fairy tale about Japan. It is easier to dismiss it if you imagine it that way. For the most part, Americans do not like to think about the ramifications of ideas.
To my mind, the quality of a thought is independent of the length of its execution. My framework is poetry. I began as a poet. No poet thinks it is strange for a poem to appear in its entirety. But for novelists it is less common. There are many examples in history of people who wrote like this, though. Voltaire would be one instance. Perhaps Simenon another. I prefer the former to the latter.
You once told me a book could be a record of how a person or entity fills their days. This was nine years ago. How do you fill your days now?
I have my habits. I like to walk very much. That was true then and it’s true now. I am much occupied with my dog, Goose. I read, of course. My partner, Catherine Lacey, and I have a rule about not speaking in the morning, so although we may both be in the same house, or may pass each other on the stair or in the kitchen, we do not speak until lunchtime. That leaves the morning for thinking. I like to cook, and I’m vegan, so it is necessary for me to cook. That takes up time. I spend many hours sitting and staring at the wall, mostly contentedly. And then there are games. I’m obsessed with Go and backgammon. On this trip to China I have managed to play Go and also table tennis with some people here. Of course, these are national specialties. I managed to escape with just a little of my hide left.
If writing is a moment of clear thought, what should one do if one is constantly and utterly confused in the mind, and therefore unable to write clearly? I am asking on my own behalf.
Oh—please. For someone so confused, Patrick Cottrell, you do manage to find vivid and startling expression. In any case, the thing is not to avoid the confusion or try to settle it with an unearned or false simplicity, but to render the confusion as such, in its own terms. It is only after the dream that the dream becomes untellable, because you lose the terms with which it was understood, the threads with which it was stitched. A slow and careful examination of the confusion of the mind, allowing for the swing and seesaw of sentiment, hope, and often even meaning: that leads to the display of clarity. Clarity as such is just a window. What it looks out on will always be an unruly scene.
One of my favorite moments in the book occurs when Lessen, a girl from Row House, considers ordering someone to tear off her own sister’s legs. Ultimately, she feels there is more pleasure in the fact that her sister might find out she has the capacity to do this. Her ability to choose whether or not to tear off her sister’s legs is eminently more satisfying than the tearing off of legs itself. There is something simultaneously cheerful and abject about Lessen’s small measure of power in this moment!
Children’s games are of endless interest to me. An adult can look in on a child’s game and say, well, it is fictional. The children are behaving as if the porch is safe, but the pavement is lava, etcetera, but it isn’t so … or, the children believe they must keep away from the chosen villain, another child, or their lives will end, and it isn’t so, it simply isn’t so, etcetera, etcetera. Yet it isn’t as simple as that. The human skill, the main human skill, is to establish irrational consensus where there is no basis for it. In the consensus there is safety, and something, anything, must be chosen (this is the importance of gossip). This allows us all to run in the same direction, safely, for no reason. The person who is reasonable, and therefore does not run, gets crushed. So when children train to subdue their reason, to suspend disbelief, and give their passion to the insane ideologies of child-pageantry, it is not a simple matter. In fact it is identical to what so-called Democrats or so-called Republicans do. The festival that Lessen takes part in has elements that are patently insane, but perhaps they are not more insane than the elements of many modern-day spectacles.
I tend not to read or understand books in terms of themes. Having said that, I notice that there is a “suicide thread” that runs throughout many of your works, beginning with The Curfew and Silence Once Begun. Why is this so?
It is a major concern for human beings, I think. There is a good deal to be said for ending one’s own life. Of course, we are driven not to by our desire to perpetuate our genes. Suicide is a thread that runs through a great deal of the literature of serious human thought. On the other hand—probably it is best to just dwell in joy and think about the shapes of stones at the seashore and the wetness of rain or whatever other nonsense pleases you. Especially when we wonder whether anything matters at all.
We’ve discussed before the act of sitting. When do you sit? If you are traveling in an unknown country, do you sit? Where? Do you have a teacher or a guide?
I don’t have a teacher, though I have gone to some retreats, and at one time sat with a group in Hyde Park (in the chapel at University of Chicago). But ultimately I found it is something I like to do by myself.
The main thing about sitting is that you get to observe the mind working. If you sit for long enough you realize how much delusion, or put another way, lack of import, there is in the odd and intermittent prompting of thoughts. That’s it. Just being patient and noticing what a delusion life is, and then being able to take more joy in the joke. As an activity it has many things to recommend it: for instance, if you can learn to like sitting, and many can’t, then sitting is something that probably will not, like everything else, be taken away from you. You’ll always have that when everything goes to shit.
What is next for you in terms of your life, and your work?
I have some classes this fall. I have another book also, which I hope to publish next. It is very large. Oxhead Horsehead is its name. It contains all manner of things: novellas, novels, short prose, memoir. I think it will make all the previous work somewhat clearer. I hope that it will see print. I am also, of course, curious to see what people make of Divers’ Game. I don’t believe it is a dystopia. Dystopian novels are pleasant distractions for the beach, for the most part, with lithe protagonists and evil. This is not that at all. Instead it is a short speech about violence—real violence that I have observed in the past forty-one years. It is a parable about that; it’s a parable but there is no lesson.
Patrick Cottrell is the author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace. He is the winner of a 2018 Whiting Award in fiction and a Barnes and Noble Discover Award.
Last / Next Article