One of the difficult things about writing a rave is that it sometimes devolves into writing a list of adjectives about certain elements of the novel; with a pan, it is easier to be both specific and entertaining. The passionate reviewer/recommender will, in their efforts to blow the trumpet as loudly as they can, sometimes focus on decibel and not on articulation. I think there is a good reason for this: in our age of ubiquitous recommendation, volume is the only means of getting attention.And there is plenty of reason to wield hyperbole when writing about The Curfew.
My temptation is to stop at a pat, blurbable hybridization along the lines of “The Curfew is like a combination of Kafka and Calvino, drawing on the former’s dread but tempering it with the latter’s fancy.” And I believe that, to an extent, but it falls prey to over-praise trap. What have I really even just said about it? To say that it is a cross between Calvino and Kafka is really to say it is like neither, since it’s difficult to imagine Calvino writing the futility of The Trial or Kafka to let his imagination rip as Calvino does in Invisible Cities.
Here is where I can start to say something about what I am trying to say: the great achievement of The Curfew is that it is both weighty and fanciful. And not only that, but the issue of “heavy lightness” or “light heaviness” (it’s not clear to me which formulation is more accurate) is itself a subject in the novel. So here’s one thing I can say: one of the pleasures of reading The Curfew is that it takes on an idea even as it uses that idea to take it on.
Some examples. The protagonist of The Curfew is William Drysdale, a widowed “epigraphist” raising his daughter in police state. His signal professional virtue is being able to write, in the space of a headstone, a few perfect words for the families of the recently deceased. This task lies at the cross-roads of two paradoxical needs: the permanence of writing about someone’s life in stone and the ethereal, virtually inexpressible feelings that those left behind had about that person’s life. William’s ability to synthesize those forces in the space of a half-dozen or so words becomes an allegory for the artist’s mission, which is to take the whirling mess of human life and transcribe it, through language, music, paint, or dance, into a fixed, observable, and enduring work. That this happens in Williams’s job over dead bodies is not inconsequential either and evokes Kafka’s essential insight about the life’s frustration and futility.
But even to be the world best eulogist is pretty thin gruel on which to live, and Ball knows better than to leave us here. The other half of William’s life revolves around his daughter, who is precocious, precious, and deaf. In the midst of an oppressive, faceless regime that has outlawed music and the arts, father and daughter construct a world of surprise, devising puzzles, treasure hunts, and games that re-enchant their otherwise terrifyingly real world.
William’s epitaphs and his fabulations with his daughter mask the loss at the heart of The Curfew: the government’s abduction and presumed execution of his wife. Eventually, though, the mask is insufficient, and he steps outside of his carefully sheltered domestic life to find out exactly what happened to her. While he is away, he entrusts his daughter to neighbors, an old puppeteer and his wife. Through the following night, the puppeteer and the daughter construct an impossibly elaborate re-telling of her parents’ childhood, education, courtship, and eventual separation. Imbued by art with the weight of emotion, the puppets, beings of virtual weightlessness, give a performance that challenges the real world’s monopoly on meaning.
One definition of elegance is to do difficult things with apparent ease. Elegance is essentially ironical; it is the appearance of one quality when we know the other quality to be the case. To be both comedic and tragic is elegant. To write a slight novel that shoves out the rest of the year’s novels is elegant. To make us feel both the joy and pain of life is elegant. To make us believe that something is real when we know it to be a fabrication is elegant. And, in the case of The Curfew, to have elegance of art as a subject and still achieve elegance, is to surpass elegance and have a brush with timelessness.
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