Jesse Ball’s first novel sees James, not Alice, in Wonderland. But Ball’s wormhole, unlike Lewis Carroll’s, gets its trimmings from terrorist headlines. The result is an alluring fable of the apocalypse that bravely sweeps asides convention of genre.
Meet James Sim, a professional mnemonist, a man who makes a living remembering. While out walking he comes across a dying man named McHale who warns him of a ominous plot involving men and women bearing odd names: Estrainger, Sermon, Torquin, and Grieve. Soon after, one-by-one, people begin committing suicide in front of the White House, each one bearing a cryptic message from a man known only as Samedi. Judgment day is only a week away, says Samedi (“Seven days and then the rod.”) When the perplexed Sim tries to find out more about dead man McHale, he’s sucked into perilous circumstances. He’s kidnapped and transported into to a bizarre “hospital” for chronic liars, his looking glass. He’s been taken there for his own protection, or so he’s told. Except that those doing the telling have similarly odd names.
Though “Samedi” is a fable by a fabulist with a kit bag of tricks, Ball’s prose and approach are uniquely idiosyncratic. His narrative gadgetry brims with surprises. The “hospital” in which James finds himself is a Cubist invention, rife with staircases, passageways and postage stamp-sized rooms that spill from walls. Boyhood and adulthood overlap. He is seduced by Alice-like Grieve and gets advice from a boyhood owl. Beautiful complications follow.
Ball’s 19th-century mannerisms takes constructions worthy of Poe and Melville and attaches them to a plot line worthy of the 1960s cult TV show “The Prisoner,” in which all is at risk but nothing seems real. Few debut novels seem so confident in swampy waters, lapping up the yapping of their strange new world.