Perhaps unfairly, but when I first saw “Census” I thought that it was going to be novel in the vein of Max Porter’s “Grief is a Thing With Feathers”. I blame the the cormorant on its cover and the published blurb about it for putting me in that frame of mind. It was very clear a few pages in that “Census” would not survive that comparison. Then again, so few books could.
“Census” is book with a very moving preface and some very moving photos at the end. In the middle is a featureless wasteland. It is populated by unnamed characters that function in an unnamed, ill defined world that is maybe desolate, where a peculiar census is conducted each year in which people are asked questions by a census taker who then marks them and posts their answers onwards. Nothing in this novel is given edges, well defined. Everything is wishy washy, vague, seen through thick, milky glass. But that preface… so you stick to it, and it helps that the book is short, though it has no plot to speak of and the setting is bleak and bland. The key to this novel is its characters then, and that’s not surprising because after all, you’ve read the preface and that’s what’s keeping you here.
And that’s the biggest frustration, because when Jesse Ball lets himself write good characters then by God the man knows how to write good characters. There’s a tiny vignette of a ex-fossil loving boy that’s so precise, so concise and so convincing that you want to howl that the rest of the novel isn’t like that. That the surgeon-father-protagonist isn’t like that. That the son, the whole reason for this novel, remains a shapeless mass with nothing making him hum – no distinct feature, tic, preference. That the wife is the best defined major character and even she is seen through thick fog. It’s never personal, emotional, realistic or if he’s really going for the absurdist (which is a poor stylistic choice for the subject matter IMHO) then it’s far from fully embracing that even.
What is feels like is that the writer took a subject that was too close to home, too painful, and tried to deal with it while not dealing with it at the same time. The result is a novel that does everything possible to make it difficult for you to feel anything for any of its characters, including empathy. It very easily lets you slip into the “oh this has nothing to do with me” mode, and from there to “none of these characters are likable, hate-able or even interesting, so why should I care” mode.
But then, the preface…