In Book VI of the Aeneid, Anchises shows his son the famous river of the underworld, the “care-less drafts of long forgetfulness” that make up the river Lethe. Shades gather on either side of its banks seeking a second chance at corporeal life. Before exiting Hades, they must wipe their memories clean. Aeneas is astonished. “Are they madmen? Why this wild longing for the light of earth? Why endure the mortal coil yet again?” The name Lethe comes from the Greek for “oblivion” or “forgetfulness.” For Virgil’s shades, to seek oblivion is to seek out the same mistakes, the same prejudice, the same violence, the same suffering. Consider, too, the Greek verb λήθω from the same root: “I escape notice” or “I am hidden.” Lethe is also an act of elision; Lethe is not carelessness or bliss, but evasion, a decision—forgetting with the intent to repeat.
In his latest work of fiction, The Divers’ Game, a carnivalesque novel of historical amnesia and uncanny violence, Jesse Ball names his first of several protagonists after the river of forgetfulness. Like her namesake, Lethe’s first action is to escape notice, and by the time her story ends, she is lost again. “If we look for her, if we run up the stairs, cast open her door, and look in her bed, she is not there.” Lethe joins Ball’s pantheon of child narrators and mischief-makers like Lucia Stanton in How to Set A Fire and Why and Molly in The Curfew, reminiscent of Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten or Ágota Kristóf’s Claus and Lucas.
Ball’s world of parades and terrible tribalism has forsaken the “charades” of fairness and equality. “As much as we like to think there can be fairness, it is really a foolish idea, one we ought to have done away with long ago,” says Ball’s omniscient narrator, who occasionally (and sometimes inexplicably) reveals himself in the first person. “Humans of the past were often hobbled when they saw other humans and felt themselves like to them. Was this not the cause of so many wars?” Society has been divided into “pats”—lawful citizens—and “quads” who live outside the city limits. Pats may harm quads in any way they wish, and do so with abandon using weaponized canisters of gas that can paralyze, murder, or make a victim ill, encouraged by propaganda that spews out of fountains and subway intercoms in neat iambs. (“If trouble comes / Like quad scum— / Your mask put on! / Your mask put on! / The gas shall flow / A cloud to grow / And lay them low / The lowest at our feet.”) Quads are branded as dangerous criminals born to be loathed and feared. Adults and children alike wear gas masks described in the same parlance as designer purses. Lethe and her nearly indistinguishable friend, Lois, behave with moral naivety, pondering murder with the same gravitas as schoolwork. Their collective voice is unsentimental, though effortlessly curious.
According to Mandred, Lethe’s and Lois’s grieving alcoholic teacher (rumored to have lost his wife by suicide), the new moral order began notably with a “famous influx of refugees—so many they could not help but change us. We were forced by them to change.” The government brands refugees with tattoos and severs their thumbs to distinguish them from citizens as they are corralled into quadrants outside of the city limits known as “precivilized space.” A second proposal disbands the prison system and moves all prisoners to the outer quadrants in an effort to further conflate refugees and criminals, who are thereafter simply lumped together as quads. As Ball writes: “How much we like to be distinguished from those who are not our equals.”
Here’s Mandred on the reasoning that made such laws possible, a sample of the upside-down logic of Ball’s prose:
There is a philosophical position that came into vogue, it is what we call in philosophy an awakening, a large-scale shift in belief: that things done to those beneath are not properly violence. It was a new definition of violence, and helped to create a vibrant morality, one that infuses our nation to this day. Our morality is what we do. Do you all understand that? But if what we do ceases to be violence, let us say it is the same, but it is no longer violence: then we are not violent; we are no longer doers of violence.
Gone is any veneer of tolerance. The Divers’ Game is glaringly political, but there’s something aloof about Ball’s novel, too, a signature quirk reminiscent of his strangest early work, as in Vera & Linus or his parables collected in The Village on Horseback. There’s a lesson, perhaps, but in Ball’s disjointed narratives and sparse prose, that lesson becomes pleasantly unclear. His is not a language that trivializes violence; it’s a language that exposes it.
The second part of the novel takes place in the quadrants on the Day of the Infanta, a holiday in which a young girl is given the authority to pass judgment on whomever she wishes. The twisted ceremony may result in her death. In another section, a boy named Eben explains the rules of the divers’ game, in which children dare one another to swim deep underwater and pass through a narrow tunnel connecting two ponds. These sections of the novel run parallel to one another while their narratives only tangentially intersect. One therefore reads them in juxtaposition, mining their contents for allegories and moral lessons. While the overall result is perhaps imperfect as a novel, The Divers’ Game is a lively, unexpected work of fiction. The pleasure of Jesse Ball’s work comes in his playfulness, his collaboration with the absurd, and the “cast off” feeling of his prose that’s somehow both minimalist and made for theater. Ball indulges in imperfection, often with a veneer of simplicity that emerges from deep knowledge of folklore, parable form, and childlike desire.
Some of the most notable passages of The Divers’ Game come from the novel’s epilogue, a suicide letter written by a woman named Margaret to her husband, akin to some of the best prose work of A Cure for Suicide and Census. On a solitary walk home, Margaret encounters a quad and, to her own alarm, murders him with noxious gas. Margaret is overwhelmed by grief and unsure of what she’s become. “We are maintained by a violence so complete, it is like air. I would rather die than anything, rather die than be alive,” she writes. Margaret’s justifications for suicide are meandering, contradictory, but more often than not end in contrition. “We wear buckets on our heads and scream ceaselessly like lunatics—this is an accurate picture of life’s maraud. But darling, I was standing on the path and instead of me standing there what stood there was some semblance of me that contained all the training I have ever been given.”
In his book A Primer for Forgetting, the critic Lewis Hyde writes about the cultural benefits of forgetfulness and presents a “scrapbook” of cases where “letting go of the past proves to be at least as useful as preserving it.” While the collection is remarkable, Hyde is eager to note where his experiment fails. “Violence denied and repressed,” he writes, “doesn’t disappear; it repeats.” Amnesia is the “cure for suicide” in Ball’s novel of the same name. It’s also the impetus for the frame narrative in The Way Through Doors, in which Selah Morse keeps a concussed amnesiac alive and awake by telling her stories. In The Divers’ Game, cultural amnesia is what puts despots in power and allows cruel rationalizations for discrimination. “What is it to kill a person? Something more than speaking out loud, and something less than being born. Something like knowledge, yet less, a knowledge that leaves you with less,” Margaret writes. Everything that came before the “new definition of violence” has been repressed due to a society’s willingness to indulge in oblivion. To drink from the river Lethe, Ball seems to say, is to indulge not in peace, but an awful violence of our own making.