(Novels) JESSE BALL
“Learning to take the very meagerest kind of joy is a difficult task, and even though it begins to be obvious that we might operate that way, living small gentle lives, Americans in particular seem almost constitutionally incapable of it.”
Jesse Ball writes with subtle urgency about political and social systems and their underlying human complexities. His latest novel The Divers’ Game builds an allegorical dystopia which uncomfortably reflects the contradictions and cruelties of the present day. In this interview, he talks about the nature of his readership, the pitfalls of describing futuristic tech, and what it takes to hold onto hope.
Interview by Tyler Nesler
What was the impetus for you to write this novel? Were the current trends in the U.S. towards authoritarianism and anti-immigration sentiment immediate factors which inspired its writing, or had you been developing its ideas over a longer period of time?
I don't develop the ideas for the books. I don't plan the books. Rather — by chance they reflect things in the world. This book is not about a future time. It is about how I have watched human beings behave.
Who do you think the audience is for this novel? Who do you think the audience should be?
It would be lovely to imagine anyone reading it. I expect there will be a few people in various places around the world who will find it makes sense. At this point, my audience is that: just a few people here and there around the globe. I feel lucky about that.
Perhaps there can be more people in the future who look at things the way I like to and find it rewarding, but I rather doubt it. I think the group of these people will always be small. How many people in any particular generation care enough to notice the world around them? Won't it always be a small number?
The society depicted in the book is referred to as "a kind of modern day Sparta," and it is very much like ancient Sparta: the quads resemble the repressed classes of Spartan helots, and the education that Lethe and Lois receive resembles Spartan agoge indoctrination. When formulating the societal structure of The Divers' Game, were there any other specific historical cultures or social models that you were working off of?
I believe the narrator says that. I'm not sure that means it is like that really. I didn't work from any particular model. Iniquity is universal.
The Divers' Game is a exploration of human morality and what a society would look like if it overtly institutionalized prejudice and intellectualized enmity. In John Gardner's book On Moral Fiction, he argues that exploring human values as a means to understand human fulfillment should be a crucial component of literature. Do you agree with that view? Would you say that an exploration of morality is a key purpose for you with writing?
It is difficult to agree with him that any particular thing "should" be. Should is a hard word to use successfully. I think it can be difficult to consider human society without probing supposedly moral behavior. But there are all kinds of books. One wonders what the term "human fulfillment" could mean. The drowning sailor gets one last breath?
The zoo which is visited by Lethe and Lois and Manfred is filled with husks of long extinct animals, along with a "living fossil" — the last remaining live hare. The zoo is well guarded and closed off to most. There is a feel of embarrassment to it, but it's also clear that it is important to the elites of this society to preserve the remnants of a long lost natural world. Why do you think this government attempts to maintain this place rather than completely obliterate all remnants of the past?
It is hard to answer this question. I am not sure it is possible to talk about the government per se as something that exists independent of the book's structure and immediate telling. Regarding the appearance of the hare: it is a kind of string that makes a certain sound. Relative to the rest of the text, it does something the other parts don't do. When I am writing I don't know what things mean or what they are doing, but I follow their voices through the fog.
The Festival of the Infanta sequence in the middle of the book is a grotesque pageantry which reminded me in many ways of cathartic public spectacles such as gladiator matches or public executions, but rendered with an absurdist carnival touch. What's especially interesting about it is how institutionalized the madness is. It's referred to as an "organized civil collapse." A few people question the festival but they also feel powerless to do anything to change it. Were you in some ways guiding the reader to view some of our present day public spectacles from a wider and more critical angle?
I am definitely not guiding the reader towards anything particular. I don't think this festival is worse than any other, than the Fourth of July or Veteran's Day or whatever war-glorifying festivals we have. I was curious to see what would happen if hierarchy were explored in a direct way by touching it with madness.
This is honestly one of the saddest novels I've ever read, in the sense of a pervasive and deep undertone of melancholy and personal stasis to many of the characters. Yet we also get a few glimpses of kindness which prevents the atmosphere from slipping into an overwhelming darkness. A good example of this is the tenderness that Lessen's attendant Ari displays towards the girl during the preparations for the Festival of the Infanta. Do you consciously work to maintain some kind of equilibrium between dark and light, or do you see that process as more instinctual and organic?
It is definitely instinctual. I agree that it is a sad book, but it is a reflection of our society and its direction. I don't necessarily think that everyone is totally fucked. But I do think many people, perhaps most people are. Learning to take the very meagerest kind of joy is a difficult task, and even though it begins to be obvious that we might operate that way, living small gentle lives, Americans in particular seem almost constitutionally incapable of it.
The titular game played by the Row House children has elements of innocent daring play while also having very deadly potential consequences. Do you see this game as a kind of initiation rite into the brutality of this society? Do you think the Divers' Game would exist at all if this society were more equitable?
These places exist in all childhoods. The example could have been the Divers' Game or it could have been some other. Our infancies are corridors of staggering fathomless depth. There have always been and will always be those who didn't find their way out.
The world in the novel seems technologically stagnant. There are trains and gas masks and everything feels generally analog and archaic, almost as if it could have been set in the 1940s. It's a depiction of what seems like a future dystopian world that is lacking any futuristic tech. What would you say the strengths are in keeping the technology in this world relatively archaic? Does it ultimately make it more relatable and unsettling to the reader?
It doesn't have to be true that the tech doesn't exist. It simply wasn't necessary to describe it in order to create an impression of life sufficient for the play of fiction.
That said — describing futuristic tech is a kind of mirage. Somehow it makes us think we are superior to the people of the past, that we can own Mercedes automobiles and ride elevators, et cetera. There are people who think we will find a technological answer that will solve all the world's problems. I prefer to avoid those trains of thought and the ambitions that go with them.
For much of the narrative there is a manipulation of language used by pats to justify treating quads as though they have no rights or any real autonomy. However, the letter written by Manfred's wife ends the book with a sharp unraveling of these rhetorical tricks via a painfully direct confessional of shame to her husband. "Somehow I felt in this wretch a mirror of me," she writes of the quad she impulsively kills. Do you think there is a fundamental empathy in human nature which can manifest despite the most rigorous indoctrinated prejudice? In that sense, is there hope for us even in the darkest of times?
There is always hope, especially if you are both lucky and patient.