A man and a woman are locked in a strange therapeutic cycle in this speculative fiction by literary experimentalist Ball (Silence Once Begun, 2014, etc.)
Though he often protests that he doesn’t want his books to be considered “trickery,” Ball once again uses a fair amount of deception, smoke, and mirrors to draw readers into his poetically nimble but characteristically peculiar story. He borrows a bit of science fiction’s flexible plausibility and a few twists from the likes of M. Night Shyamalan and sets his story in a remote village that wouldn’t be out of place on AMC’s recent remake of The Prisoner. A man awakens in a Victorian house in “Gentlest Village D4.” He has no memory, not even of his name—the novel calls him “Claimant.” A woman lives in the house; she is “the examiner,” who tells him that he was very sick and nearly died. Over the course of the first section, the examiner teaches the claimant about all manner of things and records his troubling dreams. Eventually, the claimant and the examiner take on names, but once the cycle restarts and they move to a new village, they take on different names, and the claimant keeps encountering a woman in the village who stirs unfamiliar but persistent feelings in him. Ball is playing with a lot of conceptual territory here, contemplating memory, identity, and isolation, among other themes. The novel eventually pulls back the curtain on “the Process of Villages,” this strange therapeutic transformation invented to allow men to start over completely with different identities. There are times it feels rushed between the spare, meticulous play going on between the claimant and the examiner and other breathless sections with unbroken waves of narrative exposition—the shift in tones can be jarring.
This may be Ball’s most self-contained work, but it’s also one of his most fragile and one that may not hold up under focused scrutiny by a wider audience.