Jesse Ball interview

Five minutes with US poet and author

Time In

Jesse Ball wrote The Curfew in 2008; it hits shelves this week and is available as an e-book. And yet, like his past work (Samedi the Deafness, The Way Through Doors), there’s something about The Curfew that feels antique, like a relic dusted off at an antiquarian bookstore.

‘I like to say [my writing is] old-fashioned because some people don’t like it,’ says 32-year-old Ball with a chuckle. ‘It’s less old-fashioned than it is a culling of language that corporations and businesses and public relations [use]. Like ‘refreshing.’ You can’t use ‘refreshing’ any more.’

Aside from his diction, Ball also employs a directness and simplicity at odds with much of contemporary literature, and blankets much of the story in grand metaphor. In The Curfew, William Drysdale and his daughter Molly live in a city solemnly quieted by an oppressive regime. Music has been banned, so former violinist William takes a job as an epitaphologist, writing the words on the townspeople’s tombstones. His wife, Louisa, has been ‘disappeared’ by the government, and with secret police nowhere and everywhere at once, the threat persists. William makes contact with a dissident friend, and after attending a meeting, has to traverse the city during the imposed curfew.

Seemingly a parable made all the more ominous by Ball’s narrative asides (‘He did not hurry out of worry that he would be late, but because it was the appearance of virtuous citizens– hurrying’), the book takes a sharp turn in the second half. With William’s story ending on the walk home, the rest of the book concerns Molly, staying at the house of her neighbour, Mr. Gibbons. They put on a puppet show, telling the story of William and Louisa before Molly, and taking the reader past the timeline of the book’s first half.

Ball, an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, says part of the reason for switching from William’s story to the puppet show was to tell the back story in a more natural way, rather than in flashback in the middle of the action. But it also allows Ball to add layers of complication to the previous material, and, as he says, create literature that is ‘simultaneously an actual thing and a metaphor about that thing’. ‘Sometimes a plot can go on like a railroad train, and everything is always changing. But in this book, the atmosphere is very delicate and carefully wrought. So, returning to the events with her perspective and reinterpreting them as a puppet show allows the atmosphere to be very still.’

The Curfew reads like the most overtly political of his novels so far. The ‘ministry’ of The Way Through Doors was shadowy and implicitly nefarious, but the government in the new novel is actively oppressing and killing its citizens. Yet Ball says he is not a political person, though he understands that the book could be read as allegory. ‘I don’t have any hope that the world will get any better than it is right now, politically or socially,’ he says. ‘I don’t think it goes between better and worse states, it just is and you live your life within it. If I had a political platform, it would be the primacy of the imagination.’
The Curfew is available at

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