Census: A Novel

Census: A Novel

by Jesse Ball


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A powerful and moving new novel from an award-winning, acclaimed author: in the wake of a devastating revelation, a father and son journey north across a tapestry of towns

When a widower receives notice from a doctor that he doesn’t have long left to live, he is struck by the question of who will care for his adult son—a son whom he fiercely loves, a boy with Down syndrome. With no recourse in mind, and with a desire to see the country on one last trip, the man signs up as a census taker for a mysterious governmental bureau and leaves town with his son. 

Traveling into the country, through towns named only by ascending letters of the alphabet, the man and his son encounter a wide range of human experience. While some townspeople welcome them into their homes, others who bear the physical brand of past censuses on their ribs are wary of their presence. When they press toward the edges of civilization, the landscape grows wilder, and the towns grow farther apart and more blighted by industrial decay. As they approach “Z,” the man must confront a series of questions: What is the purpose of the census? Is he complicit in its mission? And just how will he learn to say good-bye to his son? 

Mysterious and evocative, Census is a novel about free will, grief, the power of memory, and the ferocity of parental love, from one of our most captivating young writers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062676146
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/07/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 181,234
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jesse Ball was born in New York. He is the author of fifteen books, most recently the novel Census. His works have been published to acclaim in many parts of the world and translated into more than a dozen languages. He is on the faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is a winner of the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize and the Gordon Burn Prize, and was long-listed for the National Book Award. He was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists, and has been a fellow of the NEA, Creative Capital, and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Read an Excerpt



As I turned to lean my shovel against the rusted gray of the car, I looked in passing down into the grave I had dug, and saw there, along the face or wall, in trembling roots, the path I had traveled these several months taking the census in the farthest districts. As if by chance, my eye followed the slender red roots down and down into the grave, first left then left, then left then left, then right, then left then left, then right, then left then left, and always down. It was as if I could feel my hand upon the wheel, driving those field-wrapping roads and felt almost removed into the person I had been — someone like to myself, someone I myself might have known, someone bound in fact, as an arrow towards me, towards my heart and the place in which I now stand. Had I known him? Who is it that can claim at any time to know his own appearance, his own ideas? And yet we come back into ourselves again and again — there must be some recognition, something, even so slight. Must there be?

For me, I return to myself, I return and what I find is — that which surrounds me. The march of the hills that meets my eyes — it continues on within, uninterrupted. There is so little in me now to raise a cry.

I am waiting, and as I wait images circle — of my life, of my son, of these most recent days. Everything further is dim, and becomes dimmer still, though now and then something vivid arrives, something vivid breaks the frame and then, perhaps then most of all, I forget who I am or when.

Who can comprehend blankness? We as humans are so full of longing; what is blank eludes us. To be blank, to contain at your core, a blankness, it must be a talent — a person must have it, and must have it, possibly, from the very first. I have always had it.

In my time, I had read things, things like,

A census taker must above all attempt, even long for, blankness.

The fact that we mar our impressions, mar the scenes we enter by even our presence alone — it is something census takers carefully, gently even, pretend not to know. If we knew it, we could not even begin our basic enterprise. For us, the census is a sort of crusade into the unknown. Someone once said about it, into a tempest with a lantern. Into a tempest with a lantern — these are words I have said under my breath many times, though for me the feeling is not heroic but co- medic. There is a helplessness to the census taker. The limits of what can be done are very clear. Perhaps it is this very element that draws those who do it to this terrible and completely thankless work. For it is clear that whatever good it might appear to do, there can really be no meaning in such a thing, much less in some infinitely small part of such an impossibly large endeavor. My wife, now dead, would laugh to see me in an old coat approaching houses. But, I feel it still, the warmth of the little lantern, the storm of the tempest.

Most of all it was my son who prepared me for this work, my son who showed me, not in speech, but in his daily way, that we are by our nature a kind of measure, that we are measuring each other at every moment. This was the census he began at birth, that he continues even now. It was his census that led into ours, into our taking of the census, our travel north.

It was his life, his way of thinking that made the work of the census seem possible, even inevitable.

But before that, before I went to the office to become a census taker, it happened that there was a notice given to me, not about the census, not about anything, but the opposite: about everything, a notice about everything. In some sense, a messenger arrived with an envelope and put it into my hand and at that moment I knew I was soon to die. In another sense, the way it would look from the outside, I was simply going about my business, I was speaking to a nurse in my practice, standing, gesturing in the hall. Next I knew, I was lying on my back in an examination room, and concerned faces hovered above, seeing me as if for the first time.

From there I went to see a physician, a friend of mine, who had a look at me. He poked around, prodded, stood scowling.

I could do tests, he said, but I think we both know what the tests would show.

He laughed. That was his way.

We sat there for a while, and finally, he patted me on the shoulder.

But your son, what will he do? Would anyone want to take him? Who would that be? Would he go to a group home?

The way he said the word group home was awful. I shook my head.

I said there was a woman I knew who'd made an agreement with my wife and I. Her promise was, she'd watch my grown son, take care of him if anything happened to myself, my wife. She lived down the road a short ways, was undistinguished, unimpressive, gentle, wonderful.

I was leaving the room, he was showing me out, and he stopped. He adjusted my collar with his hand and nodded to himself.

I think you should stop working. I think you should go somewhere dry, somewhere to the north, near Z. The trip would do you good. Think about it. There's no need to die where you lived. It's not nobler.

I got my son from the house he was at, the people he was with. They knew nothing of what had happened. I told them we were going on a trip, that my son would not be back for a while. They made a show over him about the trip, how nice it was to go on a trip. He was glad of it, and pleased. He had been building something with sticks, and he showed it to me. I told him I liked it, what was it. He didn't like that I didn't know what it was. Our house, he told me. Of course, I said, of course it is, I was looking at it wrong.

Back at our house, I walked around the rooms, from to room to room. I thought, now I won't live here. Not even my son will live here. Somehow no one can live here now.

I left my son by himself for an hour and went down the road.

You do look like you'll die, she said. I never thought you would outlive your wife.

I've done it, I said.

But only just.

I'm going to take a trip, I told her. I'm going to go north doing the census. It will give us something to do, a last season together, a purpose that has essentially as much purpose as a thing can have, yet keep no purpose at all. My son and I can be together. We can see the same things and look at them. I'll keep close to the train line, and then, if things get bad, my son will travel back. I'll send word so you know to get him at the train.

She said it wasn't the plan she would have made, but she could see it, why I wanted it that way.

One last trip together, my son and I. And maybe I'll get better.

You might, she said.

I started to say some things about taking care of my son, about certain facts, or certain needs he had.

I know all this.

Just let me say it.

You can say it if you want, but I know it already. I'll take care of him, don't worry. It will be the same as it has been, whatever that was.

I know you didn't like my wife, I started to say.

It's your son who'll live with me, not your wife, thank god. Don't worry.

The next morning I went to the census office. I was there for a long time, and I left confirmed in a new appointment, a new profession.

My wife and I had always wanted to take to the road. Why don't we take to the road she would say. But somehow it did not happen. Although in a sense my son was the best possible reason to take to the road, he also prevented this taking to the road. At any rate, while my wife lived we did not and could not take to the road. Yet immediately upon her death I felt that there was nothing for it but to take to the road. It seemed I should find some way to do that, and the census was one way, a clear path leading nowhere and then nowhere and then nowhere and then nowhere. It seemed obvious suddenly: I could become a census taker, and my son and I could take to the road and there were no obstacles.

I got my son, and we went to the house, we left the house, we set out on the road.

I felt weak. I have felt this way for years, though. I have kept on, have worked when perhaps I no longer should have practiced, because I wanted to keep my son in a good house, with good things. Ever since he was born, our lives, my wife's, mine, bent around him like a shield.

For his part, he simply lived without regret. It is hard to feel someone owes you anything when they live without regret. What you do for them you do for yourself, isn't it so?


People would often come to greet us, out of their houses. That first day, in the country near B, we passed the outside of the circle — that which it could be guessed had been done, that which must already have been performed — a circle I observed in the offices on an enormous map a hundred feet across, we had gone beyond it — and so it was time to begin. I turned off the road and rumbled over a narrow drive to a high house, a house perched over its long single field. On the other side was a lake, and beyond, a forest's edge. Our car brought with it considerable noise, and this could be thought an advantage — for at no time in our travels did we take anyone by surprise.

They came, as I said, out of the house, a man and woman together. People come rather quickly towards you, don't they? And then they stop at a distance they consider safe — but it is never the same distance. I showed them my proofs, and the man laughed. He pulled up his shirt to show me the mark. This here, the ninth census, and this here the eighth, this here the seventh. In the sixth and fifth I was prospecting — nowhere near it, and in the fourth I wasn't born.

His wife too bore the mark, and I thanked them; we made as if to go, but they wouldn't have it. We must sit to some tea with them, and it was then that I learned a bit more about what it was, if not the census itself, then the business of the census. It contained things like this: sitting by the window of a farmhouse, holding a mug and looking out a plate glass window at a long lake where birds must throng, though then none could be seen. A sliver of moon was distant from us. A cloud made its way by. My son was occupied in the next room with some things they had found for him, he was singing, but when I finished my tea, we made our goodbyes and settled once more in the car.

How many visits should one perform in a day? How many miles travel? There are no definite answers in a work like this. We go where we can, do what we can, and ensure that our strength is kept up. That night we found a motel — completely vacant in the off season. / can't make you pay, said the owner. Not when you're on official business.

He was the first one I tattooed, setting the mark there on the correct rib. It is how we know if someone has been counted. There are those who say the census is barbaric, and they bring this as evidence. But did I not let a census taker make these marks on myself, and on my son, and on my wife in censuses past?

Each census has its own shape, and should sit upon an agreed rib. I suppose there is redundancy there, but not all census takers are doctors, so perhaps there was some worry that the wrong rib might be chosen. I feel it is well within the power of any census taker to find a third rib, or a fourth rib, but at the same time it has been my experience in speaking with census takers — myself as a private citizen — that they are often careless know-nothings. My wife used to say, they do this because they have nothing to do, no pursuit of their own. I felt the weight of this joke upon me when I took the job, for it signaled to me a kind of death. Would I carry the census always outward? At what point would I stop?

Gerhard Mutter, seemingly a man, but in fact, the pen name of Lotta Werter, who led a public life as the mayor of a German town near Stuttgart, wrote compulsively her entire life about cormorants. To her, everything applied to them. Whatever principles she discovered day by day, they seemed mysteriously entwined with those dark nimble eyes, with that whispering, wild ungraspable diving. It must be a terrible thing, she writes, again and again, in the same words (she uses the same sentences again and again — to the point where it ceases to be self-plagiarism and must be seen as refrain), it must be a terrible thing, she writes, to be a fish, and know that a cormorant has observed you. It isn't terrible to die, she thinks. It is simply terribly to be observed, and therefore to be somehow in helpless peril. There is no distance a fish can go, she writes, that will save it. From the moment at which it is noticed, the fish is permitted a sort of grace that will be concluded, excruciatingly, with the bayonet of the beak.

As I approached a house on the main road six miles past B, I felt that the census is in some way an observation, and if so, if it is, then what is its beak, when does the beak come, and what is the quality, if the beak could be taken into account, of the grace granted? Lotta Werter was also known for wearing a dark fur hat that she, by all accounts, would never take off. One or more of her biographers notes the joke that she would often make about the hat: it is my wig or it is a wig or it is a sort of wig I wear. She would often say this about her dark fur hat, which, in actuality was a series of dark fur hats that she purchased at a shop in Stuttgart itself. Seal fur, always, apparently. This fact is brought home by a page in Gold Ponds where she writes, the seal is an obvious analog to the cormorant, but where the cormorant is patient, the seal busies itself with finding its pleasure, and so, over the course of a thousand years, becomes profligate. What then does it mean that she wore a seal fur hat? A revisionary biography published in recent years brings this claim into doubt. Apparently there were no seal fur hats in Germany at that time. Such hats were invariably made from mink. There is a painting, however, which I have often looked upon, at the State Gallery in Stuttgart, of a cormorant perched in a tree, frozen in its indelible shape. The act of the cormorant's violence is woven into its trees and into the water itself — you could say, even woven into the fish that swim beneath.

The woman who came to the door was about thirty- five, and wore a loose sleeveless dress. She welcomed my son and me in, and we sat like three conspirators in her parlor, heads together.

How is it that three people can just learn to laugh, suddenly, at anything that is said? We were like that- drawn implacably to an unaccountable joy — and then spinning along its edges gratefully. She answered my questions. She had not seen the census yet — I was its first messenger, and so before I left I made our mark upon her. She opened her dress: the sort of thing that might confuse or worry an ordinary person, but for myself, having been a doctor, it was quite usual. I found the rib and made the mark. There was something she said — a story she told, it was, her house had been robbed once, she said, by a man she knew. She was in the house at the time and had stood behind the drapes. As they went from to room, the burglars, taking things, they spoke to each other, about the house and about her. She didn't mind at all, she said, the things they took. She had an inheritance of some sort — and didn't need much of anything. Or, anything she needed, she could buy again, and she might even like the trouble it took. But, it was this: listening to them talk, hearing them as they saw her belongings and spoke of them — it was delightful to her. She could almost have burst out laughing, so she said.

When the man described her to the others, and she could imagine their minds matching her to the house and possessions, a sensation of giggling — of permanent and proper situation in that which is oblique — came over her. To this day it has never left me, she said. She kissed my son on the cheek and embraced me fiercely when we went away. A terrible thing, I believe, had happened at some point to her right arm, but she did not mention it, nor did we. In the photographs by the door she — as she put it, and here I am a bride, and here I am a bride, and here a child, and here a widow. But you are a widower — I'm sure you can recognize me in this photograph, however dark my costume.


Excerpted from "Census"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Jesse Ball.
Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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