Carroll + Murakami + Kafka + Bulgakov = Brain Boggle


The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (February 10, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307387461

    The back cover blurb is what grabbed me. A young man (Selah Morse) - after a long, trippy chapter I won't even go into – sees a young woman hit by a car. She's alive and remarkably unscathed, but unconscious. He takes her to the hospital, in the back seat of the car driven by the man who hit her, and she's pronounced physically sound save for a concussion. She has total amnesia, so the man tells her he's her boyfriend. He says her name is Mora Klein, a name he made up on the spot. Since she has no i.d. she can't disprove anything. She protests she doesn't remember him. He tells her she will, after he starts telling her stories about their lives. He takes her to his apartment, after being told he needs to keep her awake for a few hours so she doesn't slip into a coma. And he starts telling her stories.

    Sounds intriguing enough, no? Then, along comes a flying Victorian house no one seems to think unusual; odd people popping in and out for no apparent reason, saying things that make no sense whatsoever; a dog that plays the fiddle; and a tunnel with stairs that take a day and a half to walk down. Did I mention the tunnel was located squarely in the middle of a river in NYC? Or that once you get to the bottom there's a whole other ecosystem there, one that supports life – albeit damn weird life?

    This doesn't even scratch the surface. It's what I imagine an acid trip to be like. Or a dream you'd have while in a coma. Psychedelic, and as far as I can tell a book with no real point. Selah spends most of the book looking for Mora, who disappeared from his apartment early in the book. I got that. It's just everything else in the middle I couldn't make sense of. Just a small issue.

    I loved Alice in Wonderland as a child. There was a seemingly endless hole in that book, too, and Alice fell and fell for what seemed like forever. Yet I could suspend disbelief because it was a story for children. The odd characters and behavior in that novel entranced me. Few things in Wonderland made sense, but it was magical along the way. And in the end it was all a dream - easily reconciled.

    I've read and appreciated Murakami, Kafka and even Bulgakov – the most "off the deep end" of the group. All these authors have written books in which very strange things happen, yet somewhere in the tangle there's a weird sort of sense to it all. They aren't linear, either. Then, in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, there's a talking cat who happens to be Satan's translator. Weird. Okay. But for whatever reason I got these books.

    Jesse Ball's book didn't have that same power to grip me. He takes the reader in so many directions it's dizzying. I got to the point I barely cared anymore if Selah ever found Mora. After all, he based their supposed relationship on taking advantage of a woman with a concussion. Dude. Very uncool. I guess I was supposed to feel this was destiny, that his long journey was a sort of knight's quest to find the fair lady. And I understand that. It's obviously a quest novel. But in between I could barely fathom a thing. Parts were entertaining in their own right. But others were a slog.

    Yet, at times Ball writes some gorgeous, lyrical prose. That's what I can't reconcile. The book made me want to bang my head against the wall. The constant flow of unrelated oddities drove me mad. But at times the prose was exquisite.

    I can't condemn the book. I can only say I personally didn't always enjoy the act of reading it. Sometimes, yes, I got lost in the story – in a good way – but at others it felt as though Ball was trying to be a little too clever, post-modern for the sake of post-modernism. Confusion for the sake of confusion. Ball has something. Quite a lot, actually. But for me this book wasn't what I'd deem a riveting reading experience. I feel sorry for that, too. I wish that weren't the truth.

    I've enjoyed so much experimental and surreal fiction. I just couldn't fall for this one. At the same time, I don't not recommend it, if this is your sort of  thing. I thought it would be mine, but alas. Not this time. An interesting way to start my foray back into reviewing, eh?

  • 3 thoughts on “Carroll + Murakami + Kafka + Bulgakov = Brain Boggle

    1. Two words: Flann O’Brien. I read The Third Policeman and, for most of the book, had no freakin’ clue what was going on. Sounds a bit like this book. Sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy it.


    2. Lexi, I was so frustrated I wasn’t able to get into this book. It had elements I enjoyed, yet the overall effect just didn’t grab me. It may be I wasn’t truly in the mood for a surreal, trippy book. I was hoping for more of a realistic story about Selah and Mora, but it was anything BUT that!


    3. I added this book to my wishlist based on the cover alone. But maybe I’ll take it off.
      It sounds like a post-modern nightmare. I got prickly sensations, reading your review, that took my back to reading The White Hotel or whatever it was called. That was a weird, acid-trippy book, too. I don’t recommend it. Post-modernity is so not my scene.


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