Book Review: Census by Jesse Ball
In the novel Census, a surgeon finds out that he is terminally ill.
His imminent death spurs a radical change from the norm. Bringing along his son who has an intellectual disability, he embarks on a new job gathering census information.
It’s unclear for whom he gathers the info or for what purpose. It’s different from the typical United States census. He visits a line of villages from A-Z, conversing with citizens, recording their personal information, and marking them with a small tick-mark tattoo to show they’ve been counted.
Through the towns, he gathers demographic information, but also stories. Each home offers varying threats, kindnesses, secrets, and longing.
Our narrator longs for many things. For his deceased wife and the life they shared. For his son’s continued unencumbered journey through life. Never for his own life, though. He accepts his mortality with not-quite-nihilism, not-quite-acceptance, not-quite-resignation. He fears he won’t finish his census-taking before his death, but never quite makes the mental leap to having unfinished business in his own life.
The goodbye with his son seems remarkably unemotional. I expected more of a revelation. A profession of undying love. Tear-soaked words of wisdom.
But perhaps that ‘s not the point. The census isn’t a journey towards a destination. The destination, after all, is nothing. It’s death.
I kept searching for meaning with the pages. Is the census an allegory? Surely the book can’t just be a collection of anecdotes.
But maybe it is. Maybe it’s just one last journey. A journey with the only destination being not some golden prize or wisdom, but the end. One final chance to see the beautiful countryside, meet people with a tapestry of experiences and viewpoints, and show his son the world.
“He who looks too hard for any particular thing, though he may find it, will certainly miss the most wondrous and strange things he passes, though they stare him in the face.”
• Jesse Ball, Census
Published March 2018