Review: Novelist Jesse Ball’s wild new memoir ‘Autoportrait’

On the shelf

auto portrait

By JesseBall
Catapult: 140 pages, $20

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A young Jesse Ball discovers a dead dog. His owner is a classmate who never deigned to talk to him, but Ball still helps her and her mother put the body in a plastic bag. “None of them thanked me,” Ball writes — another brutal moment in his challenging new memoir Autoportrait. “They got in the car and drove away and the girl never mentioned it again. I think she thought that the kind of person I am is the kind of person that would do this for the kind of person that she is. I suppose she was right.”

Who is Jesse Ball? The answers come quickly and oddly in this thoughtful, somber, impressionistic new work, a sleek but powerful homage to French photographer Edouard Leve’s 2005 memoir Autoportrait — which, as Ball explains, “took an approach that does not elevate fact over fact, but lets facts stand together in a fruitless lump.”

In the beginning, it can feel like a game making the decision as to which facts make the cut, in what order, and with what effect. The game can unhelpfully feel like writing an entire novel without the letter E, as made famous by Ernest Vincent Wright in 1939’s “Gadsby.” But such tricks have also yielded successful results, including Padgett Powell’s near-perfect 2009 novel The Interrogative Mood, which consists entirely of questions, or Robert Coover’s 1981 collection of stories, Spanking the Maid, which retells the same scene over and over again – each In a slightly new way.

There’s no doubting what Ball is capable of in less constrained circumstances. In novels like Census and Silence Once Begun, Ball has proven himself to be a master stylist, one of the most ambitious and provocative of his generation, with big ideas and an equally proud heart. But can a book as blunt and edgy (and sometimes off-putting) as Autoportrait ultimately convey the same kind of confidence and simplicity?

Sometimes Ball acts like a monster. “However, it has been a long time since I took revenge on anyone, at least fifteen years,” he writes, wondering, “Does that mean I’m less concerned with my life?”

"auto portrait" by Jesse Ball

There is a dark joke in such openness, a monster that may lurk in all of us. In more vulnerable moments, it feels like trauma. “I’ve had night terrors,” he shares elsewhere, “since about 1990, when my brother went to the hospital and became paraplegic from the waist down. I have migraines, sometimes once or twice a week, sometimes not for a month. When I do, I throw up and roll on the floor like a dog.” The clash of serious, unvarnished facts begins to develop a broader notion of how we live—or how we fail to live fully.

There are also lighter moments, touches of humor or even revelations. There is Ball’s view of the Olympics as “a cross between the Thunder Party, the Salem witch trials, the invention of penicillin and making a sandwich”. There’s also the odd way he shatters an experience of empathy with the joy of looking up at the sky:

“The demonstrable power of a person’s empathic insight is rarely seen, but when it’s like my friend’s, it comes as a shock. You have to change to adapt to it, or you have to become numb to ignore it. Once in Gardur, I came out of a building with my wife and the sky was full of circling birds… there were people on the street who were walking back and forth in the face of this spectacle and it meant nothing to them. They couldn’t even see it.”

That last comment bears a tinge of self-assured arrogance (all those others are so blind to miracles!); The book feels least interesting when this particular strain on Ball’s personality comes to the fore.

“My assumptions about people are often correct, even in an uncanny way,” he writes. “That said, it’s especially bad when I’m wrong.” Elsewhere, it just sounds like clueless white privilege: “I’ve never been afraid of what would happen if I went to jail … I’m always surprised when I get a ticket because most of the time I’m very good at dodging them.” Well, why could that be? The answer lies somewhere between the bird’s sky and the solipsistic depths of the soul.

And yet, buried deep, what makes the book worth studying is its central tension. It turns out Ball hasn’t just always felt antisocial, uncomfortable in his body, and unsure of what life should be like. It’s also true that at 39, award-winning, tenured and loved, he’s still not hopeful of how much even a near-perfect sentence can do.

For all its formal risk-taking and idiosyncratic stylistic choices, it’s probably saying something that the most enticing moment in “Autoportrait” can be where the germs of a plot are seen. It’s a diamond-sharp memory involving his mother and a New York City restaurant that has always taken special care of Ball, and the owners and staff taking lavish steps to show him how much they love his business estimate. But for a reason, Ball decides not to share and everything falls apart.

“That gentle respect ended one day in circumstances too painful for me to relate,” he writes. Will he share more? “Anyway,” he continues, “I usually order steamed vegetable dumplings at the restaurant…” That’s all he says, and the decision feels cruel.

At another restaurant, this time in Chicago, Ball learns that his favorite waitress has died. “Although it came as a shock to me,” he writes, “I just ran my fingers over the cabin’s plastic and was blown away by the moment.”

This is a bold book that’s also a little crazy. There is power in it, cleverness and almost unbearable honesty, but the lingering aftertaste of such gristly delicacies generates little more than an intense desire to hug Ball tightly.

Deuel is a continuing instructor in UCLA’s writing programs. Review: Novelist Jesse Ball’s wild new memoir ‘Autoportrait’

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