In Search of Lost Memory: Jesse Ball’s Elegiac ‘A Cure for Suicide’

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What if memory behaves like an immune system? Let’s say, for the sake of a thought experiment, that our memory acts as a time-mind barrier, swelling around our psychic wounds, expanding or contracting in reaction to external stimuli. It might be possible, on that basis, to tear down our memories and rebuild them in much the same way that modern medicine razes the immune system in order to make way for alien stem cells.

This elementary yet profound thesis guides much of the “plot” of Jesse Ball’s mournful fifth novel, A Cure for Suicide. On its surface, it’s a spare and unfolding fiction, an object lesson in the author’s maturing line of dark, serene allegories. Beneath this surface lurks the wound.

The story, for most of the novel, is given over to a man called “the claimant,” who struggles to remember not only his past but also the basics of life: what dreams tell us, for example, or what it is to draw a picture. His memory is restored and erased by a woman known as “the examiner,” who acts as his caretaker and daemon. Occasionally, the examiner files reports on the claimant’s progress or administers a strange medication when he has come too near to some traumatic relapse.

The pair spend much of their time in one of a series of identical houses, each located in what is known as “the gentlest village,” which is itself one among a sequence of interchangeable communities in a galactic structure known as “the Process of Villages.” Within these villages, the claimant learns and unlearns, remembers or misremembers (or so he is told) the manageable joys and sorrows of life.

Ball performs the remarkable task of pruning away layers of readerly skepticism in order to find the inherent beauty of small moments, which often arrive with a childlike wonder that betrays their philosophical weight. Many of these come when the claimant has been reset to some degree, when he begins the “cure” again. Here the claimant learns the examiner’s “new” name:

—What is your name?

—For now it will be Emma Moran.

—If someone looks like me, does that mean it is likely their name…

He sat a moment, working the thought out in his head.

—Does it mean their name will be somewhat like mine? Like spoons or knives?

—Each person has a name. The point of it is this—to make it easier to talk about things, especially things that aren’t present. Names are much less important than people think. They aren’t really important at all. You and I get by for instance most of the time without talking at all—isn’t that so?

The claimant nodded.

Late in its first section, A Cure for Suicide nearly traps itself in a limbo of dystopian cliché, especially when a woman named Hilda attempts to persuade the claimant that the Process of Villages is a ruse perpetrated by soulless actors. Patience, though, is rewarded. Soon the book reveals itself to be dystopian only in the sense that suicidal ideation might be described as a desperate, unwanted state. The novel recovers, in other words, an almost medical sense of the word — where “dys” points to illness.

Split into disparate formal sections, the novel reveals itself, as Alexander Kluge says about film, between the cuts — it’s as much about what is left out as what is kept in. And these sections do bleed into one another in the way a film might switch tactically from black and white to color.

A Cure for Suicide — like all of Ball’s work — offers a cinematic minimalism, one that is both materialist and conceptualist, much in the way that film is matter etherized on a screen. Often compared to fabulists like Italo Calvino, his latest work bears closer resemblance to the (likewise) filmic efforts of the nouveau roman and its fellow travelers, like Alain Resnais. Certainly too, this book is more Je t’aime je t’aime than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

“Our world is a difficult succession of losses,” suggests a man late in the novel, “vaguely remembered, vaguely enshrined.” It’s an elegant if elegiac summation of a deserving novel, one that describes how memory, when cared for more than curated, might be linked to something better than just staying alive.