Posts Tagged ‘The Curfew’

“The Father Costume” by Ben Marcus

Sunday, December 11th, 2011



This novella by Ben Marcus (with illustrations by the artist Matthew Ritchie) is currently unavailable except from a handful of used book dealers who are selling copies at forbidding prices. What a shame.

The Father Costume was published in 2002 by Artspace Books as part of a series featuring “collaborations of image and text by today’s most innovative artists challenging the culture in which we live.” Here’s how Marcus describes his interaction with Richie:

We got together and talked a little bit about stuff that interested us. He’s really into physics and creation stories and origin theories of the universe, yet his relationship to all that heavy stuff is really light and playful and subversive. When you look at his paintings, there’s certainly nothing didactic or overbearing about them. He wants painting, essentially, to visualize the first moments of time. We threw some ideas around and decided to make a book. I wrote something and I showed it to him. He made some images and we got together again to mess around some more. There’s the book.

The book ought to be brought back into print, for the simple reason that I can think of no more exemplary introduction to the accomplishments of Ben Marcus, a so-called “experimental” writer who in these 45 pages belies that label’s negative implication of inscrutability by producing a work of deep emotion and resonance.

On the immediate level The Father Costume is a family drama told from the awed perspective of a child who attempts to follow the unfathomable actions of his father. It is narrated by one of two brothers removed by their father from their ancient home to escape some amorphous danger. They embark on a sea voyage that takes an ominous turn. As strange and at the same time as genuinely moving as Donald Barthelme’s affecting tale, The Dead Father (1975), the book bears an even closer kinship to Jesse Ball’s The Curfew (2011) which centers on the bond between a father and his daughter and is also set in a time and place not exactly of this world. Marcus previously examined relationships within nuclear families in Notable American Women: A Novel (2002) and does so again in the upcoming The Flame Alphabet (2012).

Veteran readers of Marcus know that the author achieves his signature brand of queasy disconnection and anxiety by means of language manipulation. He moves way beyond the relatively simple language games of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” (where nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, are replaced with nonsense word counterparts) — upping the ante by constructing sentences with familiar but “wrong” words, crafting images and actions that catch you off guard. Early in the The Father Costume the son notes, for example, “I dotted our windowsills with listening utensils, in case a message came in the night.” The reader must remain nimble in order to negotiate the uncertain ride of these games. What serves you best in this mythical and fantastical universe is a comfort level with surrealism and a willingness to tap into your intuitive side. As well you must also accept Marcus’ obsession over certain objects (here, cloth, costumes, lenses), rituals, and failures of communication. Early on the son explains, “I could not read fabric. I had a language problem.” He notes that “the antenna of our radio had been soaking in honey overnight.” Later he confesses, “My brother and I would have attacked my father with chopping motions until he had been silenced. Keeping maybe his hair, just in case.”

Some of this oddness is amusing, but all sense of playfulness disappears as the story reaches its climax with violence and death. That is when essential questions are unavoidable. What is the meaning of the cryptically-described “costumes” the father makes for himself and his sons? Are these their personas? Socially-imposed behaviors? God’s constraints? Can The Father Costume be viewed as a religious allegory, and a specifically Christian one? At the end of the story the surviving son wonders whether “there may be a father operating on the other side of the glass.” In an interview C. B. Smith conducted with Marcus devoted solely to The Father Costume the author explains: “The narrator has no idea what is really happening. That kind of innocence appealed to me, the trust you put in someone whose designs are beyond your comprehension.”

More telling to me is how in the final pages the narrator finds solace in reviewing his martyred brother’s voice: “And though I do not understand the words, I enjoy their defeat of silence . . . I know them to be the right ones, the ones that someone had to say. I am happy that they are mine now.”

A few words on the book as a physical object. Fascinating to me is the book designer’s decision to take cues from childrens books of an earlier age. This includes retro 1950s-style thick cardboard covers whose edges are cut to expose gray paper pulp, as if this were much-handled book. Adding to the worn look is a spine wrapped in black cloth tape, as if Dad had repaired the falling apart pages with a trusty spool of old-style electrical tape. Inside the front cover is a place inviting the young owner to fill in his or her name in clumsy block letters. All of this adds a sense of innocence to a challengingly adult book.





“The Curfew” by Jesse Ball

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011



Jesse Ball’s third novel, “The Curfew,” is not as ambitious, experimental, or beholden to meta-fictional devices as its predecessors. The new book is more accessible. Shorter too: “Samedi the Deafness” contains 279 pages of text; “The Way Through Doors,” 228 pages; while the “The Curfew” flows fast at 193 pages. At its heart is not a hallucinatory cat-and-mouse game (Samedi), nor a whirling dervish of endless tales (TWTD) — material a few readers found wearying. Here, instead, is an elemental story, set in a perilous universe, of protective love between a father (William, 29, “once-violinist, now epitaphorist”) and his eight-year-old daughter, Molly. You are likely to be genuinely moved.

Upon reaching the end of “The Curfew” I was reminded of Guillermo del Toros’s film, “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006). In both the novel and the movie we follow a bright and sensitive girl who has been left to her own devices (one parent lost, the other distant) and who now must deal with a violent world overtaken by fascism. In both tales, the trappings of fantasy and fairy-tale become the young girl’s defense against terror and real human misery. Del Toro has explained that elements of his film came from his childhood experiences with “lucid dreaming.” Jesse Ball, also, practices lucid dreaming, and he teaches a course on the subject at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. (He also teaches courses on “False Identities” and “Lying”.) One predictor of your potential enjoyment of “The Curfew” may be whether you were enchanted and moved by “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

Although the pull of “The Curfew” is more emotional than ever, the author has jettisoned his other signature interests. The things Ball does well in all his fiction he continues to do in “The Curfew.” He gives readers permission to pay attention. He knows how to conjure up off-kilter and perilous environments (here, a military coup has reduced an American city to a condition of pervasive terror). As before, he relies less on the traditional moorings of the novel and more on his own bizarre and generous wit to propel the story. He trusts the reader’s own imagination similarly will rise to the occasion. Saying less means saying more.

Consider, for example, William’s forte as an writer of tombstone epitaphs. His skill rests in finding the right, few words to memorialize a life, or in one case, the right, few words to impart as much about the circumstances of a death as can be borne by the surviving parents:


9 years, 24 days.

In the street by our house, it was almost evening.

Ball also knows how to exploit the design of the page — judicious use of empty space, breaks, inserts, irruptions of very large type — in service to the story. He gives you permission, and the opportunity, to pay attention. His prose, though not ostentatiously lyrical, becomes beautiful through his command of rhythm. (No surprise: he is a poet, after all.)

Reading “The Curfew” you come upon many a grace note, many little notes of wisdom: “Magic is either a poverty-stricken necessity or a wealthy fantasy.” “She felt as many well-brought-up people do that her life is a collection, that she is always collecting.” “The effect of irrational beliefs on your art is invaluable. You must shepherd and protect them.” “There’s nothing like the embarrassment of cats.” And — I’m going out on a limb here — I believe Ball was chaneling a memorable dialog moment from “Groundhog Day” on page 33 (compare it to the Phil? Phil? scene, found here) and echoing the “Wizard of Oz” in a guarded-entrance exchange on page 28 (compare the “Why didn’t you say that in the first place!” scene found here.)

While Molly’s perspective is understandably that of childish discoveries, this is something also shared by her artistic father:

For the first time in a long while, William looked down and saw his hands. If you have had this experience, you’ll know just what I mean.

Later, remembering his career as violinist (now forbidden by rulers who’ve abolished music), William reflects on the tension between reality, play, and art:

There is a space in the playing of a virtuoso piece where the violinist must cease to think about the music, must cease thinking of fingerings, even of hands and violins, where the sound itself must be manipulated directly. At such times even to remember that one has hands, that one is playing, is disastrous.

One question the reader of “The Curfew” may be left with is whether Ball has selected the right vessel for his content. He relies heavily on elements of stageplay writing, and of screenplay writing. Music and sound are important. You will encounter the wise old director of the puppet play that occupies the final third of “The Curfew,” who expresses this worry: “There is the matter of what is the glue to hold it all together; I’m not sure this will do.” Would the author’s presentation of “The Curfew” work better in another medium?

But, then, maybe Ball has already responded. The puppet play director explains: “If one person can control every aspect of the performance, then nothing need be lost. Nothing!”



1.  I found the idea of an art form that “gives you permission to pay attention” from a Paris Review Daily piece by Lorin Stein, here. Stein writes: “One thing I like about poems is that you are allowed to stare at them, and think about them, for as long as you like. In this sense, they resemble slow movies, or portraits, or nudes, or most of what we think of as art: poems give you permission to pay attention to a degree that would be rude or embarrassing face to face with, for example, a person.”

2.  Jesse Ball’s website (with drawings by the artist) is here. An interview by with the author on the occasion of the publication of “The Curfew” appears online at The Millions, here. Another short interview which exposes how prolific this fellow is, is found here. A revealing interview from 2009 (on the release of his second novel, “The Way Through Doors,” is found here; it delves into lucid dreaming and Ball’s influences, including film. Ball reads one of his poems (?) in the video, here and (same video) here. Then there’s this video (featuring the inspiration for Molly?).

3.  A shorter version of my review is posted on Amazon, here.

4. An very enthusiastic review of “The Curfew” by a literary blogger (“When High Praise Isn’t Enough”) is found here. The Fiction Advocate finds a moral dimension (and life lesson) in the book. A laudatory review from NPR, here. The New Yorker weighed in (briefly), here (alas, subscription required).

5. Others disagree. One is Michael Herbert Miller, who finds “The Curfew” to be the “least fulfilling” of his novels: “Clever, yes, but it does not make for a thrilling read. (…) Ball is a breed of anti-Flaubertian …”.  Another not-so-enthralled review is found here.