Josh Cook on Jesse Ball’s The Curfew
When we read, we read with our memories. Jesse Ball was already an important author in my reading life by the time I read The Curfew, but whereas his earlier books explore more amorphous ideas like our relationship to imagination, the nature of storytelling, and the bounds of reality, The Curfew explores something more direct and tangible. It was like Ball shot an arrow into my memories of political activism and pinned a question that had dominated my thinking for years: how do we intentionally change the world for the better?
The rented yellow school bus was freezing. Frigid February air rushed in through popped interior rivets. I was on my way back to Burlington, VT from New York City where I had joined thousands of people on February 15, 2003 to protest the coming Iraq War. We were supposed to gather in a delineated zone—a cordoned-off area where our Constitutional right to peaceful assembly would not be superseded by the muscular application of local traffic, vagrancy, and other statutes—near the U.N. building where Colin Powell was giving his now infamous speech, but we never got there. Didn’t get within five blocks. The streets were clogged with people, and not just in New York. Around the world millions of people were joined in one of the biggest moments of protest in decades all with one clear message: There is no justification for a war with Iraq. We and the people of Iraq will be recovering from that war for decades.
It wasn’t my first protest. I’d been to D.C. to protest the exploitative policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. I’d been to the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia to protest United States interference in democratically elected governments. I’d stood with a dozen people at the top of Church St. to protest the war in Afghanistan because “terrorism” is a technique and you can’t wage war on a technique. More generally, I wrote a political column in my college’s newspaper, participated in the poli sci club, organized events, thought, talked, wrote, and voted.
After I graduated, the nature of my efforts to make the world a better place changed. I didn’t have as much time or resources for organizing and protesting. Besides, I had begun to wonder whether our techniques for creating directed, intentional social change towards a more just and humanist society were working. Protests seemed to be more about emotional catharsis (which is not a bad thing) than about changing policy. Any progress seemed to be two steps forward, one and a half steps back.
But we did not stop trying. Social media arrived. The undercurrent of violent racism corroding our law enforcement and devastating the African-American community was finally brought to the attention of (some) white people with #BlackLivesMatter. Occupy Wall Street changed the conversation about income inequality in America and opened up new possibilities for protest and social change, from the flashy occupations, to the quiet but powerful Rolling Jubilee. We watched Republicans start to break our system of government because the nation had the audacity to elect a black man as President—twice!—and we watched that same black man, despite the malicious opposition of Republicans, stitch the economy back together, extract us from unwinnable wars, improve our national health care system, end don’t ask don’t tell, and lay the executive groundwork for major advances in economic, social, and environmental justice. Later, those on the left, the engine for so much of that change, found another piston in Bernie Sanders. By the Democratic National Convention, the Democratic party had adopted the most progressive platform since the New Deal. I started thinking about how we removed the ability of Republicans to obstruct progress and how to keep pressure on mainstream Democrats to make good on their progressive promises.
The problem of social change—of how to improve the world in the ways you want it to improve—might be intractable, and in the end, those who struggle for change might be left with vague adages like “Don’t take anything off the table, do what sustains and energizes you, and try not to hurt anybody else, especially those weaker than you.” I’ve spent the bulk of my adult intellectual and political life thinking about the problem of social change. On November 9th, the problem changed from the intractability of social change to the necessity of resistance.
Books change with the world in which you read them, and images and ideas from The Curfew that once spoke to protesting for social change, now speak to resistance. William Drysdale, the protagonist of The Curfew, is a violin virtuoso who can no longer play. Instead, he finds work helping people compose epitaphs for their gravestones. An oppressive, coup-installed government has banned all performance, music, and dissent and enforces a vague but deadly nightly curfew. The government’s will is imposed by secret police. Dissenters disappear in the night. William himself was left to care for his daughter alone when his wife is disappeared. It is a gray, dour, cowed world, but there is resistance. William’s friend, Gerard, entices him to a meeting with the promise of information about William’s wife, but the larger purpose of the meeting is to spread “the method of disgovernance.”
It’s not a movement. It’s barely a group. But it is a revolution.
There is tension at the meeting, an “enforced jocularity,” and some contraband, but there are no posters, no agendas, no manifestos, no mimeograph machines or photocopiers. There are no speeches, no exhortations to action, no exchanges of activist literature. No weapons. If the secret police burst in, they wouldn’t find a revolutionary cell, but a tedious party. It’s not a movement. It’s barely a group. But it is a revolution.
Gerard explains the method of disgovernance to William: “It is simple enough to describe in a phrase or two the whole extent of it. Any member of the government, any member of the police, of the secret police are all targets. You live your life and do nothing out of the ordinary. But if at some moment, you find yourself in a position to harm one of these targets, you do. Then you continue as if nothing happened.”
There is no leader to hobble the movement with hubris. No message to be distorted by the mainstream media. No fashion to be co-opted by corporations. No entry point for lobbyists or FBI infiltrators. No one to pressure into erodible compromise. No legislators. No executives. No proposed legislation to be poisoned by riders and amendments or killed in committee before anyone is forced to expose their true allegiance in a public vote. No one to bribe. No one to corrupt. No one to imprison. No one to kill because you can’t kill a technique.
Gerard continues his description: “You never go out of your way to make such an opportunity come to pass. Not even one step out of your way. And yet, without exception, the targets must each day place themselves in danger before the citizenry, and cause such opportunities to exist. One doesn’t prepare oneself except mentally.” No plans. No materials. No literature. No manifestos. The method is invisible to power because all power can see are random acts of violence. And once the government recognizes the revolution, who can they attack? Everyone? As Gerard explains, it is a “…war with no participants.” In the end, no matter the salary, no matter the other inducements, no matter the promises of protection and the seduction of ultimate power, no one will join the secret police. Tyrants, even the most cunning and most violent, all have the same fundamental and inescapable weakness: Without volunteers, they are just one person.
Once we are introduced to the method of disgovernance we realize The Curfew is filled with revolution. An old woman is shot for pushing someone in front of a bus, someone is nearly hit by a car, another man is killed by a brick, and “[o]ne could assume, therefore, that if a building was on fire then it might well be a police station.”
By reducing revolution and resistance to a fundamental unit that does not have the flaws, seams, and weaknesses of other techniques for change listed above, the method of disgovernance, a technique of random acts of violence, is compelling. All the revolution needs to sustain itself and succeed is to spread the idea and either people have the will to enact it at a level that is effective or they won’t. The burden on revolutionaries is reduced to their individual preparation to act, spreading the method, and convincing people to adopt it. Given the intractability of social change and our new urgency to act, the method of disgovernance or some form of it feels transferable to our world.
In most dystopian fiction, targets are relatively obvious. Whether orcs, stormtroopers, or soldiers, we know who the targets are by their uniforms. But in the world of The Curfew, the government uses secret police: plain-clothed officers disguised to observe unobserved, to inform without being identified, to act with impunity and anonymity. You couldn’t spot one in a line-up and you certainly couldn’t spot one in a crowded train station.
Gerard answers the problem of identification this way: “You err on the side of false positives. Everyone shifts their behavior to simple routines, and the secret police are forced to become visible, simply to do their work.” The secret police reveal themselves when they arrest people, or are out after curfew without fear, or ask questions whose answers would be useful to the government. Their uniforms are woven by their actions. For Gerard, it is better to risk harming an innocent than wait for absolute certainty, but this is just a technique. Anybody can establish their own rubric and make their own decision. Gerard might err on the side of false positives, but nobody else has to.
In America today, some of the “targets” are public figures, individuals who must put their faces and names on their actions, and, as in the world of The Curfew, our targets clothe themselves in their actions. They become targets when they ask for the names of people who worked on climate change for the Environmental Protection Agency or on women’s issues in the State Department. They become targets when they assign executive power over departments to people specifically designed to destroy them, cover up potential crimes and collusion, celebrate in Trump what they condemn in Clinton, line up to catch the scraps of wealth from the coming kleptocracy, and take the moment of Trump’s tainted, electoral college victory to spray paint swastikas on public spaces. We are awash in targets. Some of them will have security paid for by our own tax dollars between us and them, but some of them will be on our train or across from us at the dinner table.
But the concept of “harm” is trickier for us. In The Curfew, the secret police shoot people in the street, beat them to death, make them disappear. Since the secret police are murderers, most will accept the ethical validity of a wide range of harm. But, as yet, the violence of the Trumpocracy and the existing sources of injustice it will strengthen and maintain, are at one or two removes. It is unlikely that anyone in the Trumpocracy will order the assassination or jailing of an opponent, swing a club, or pull a trigger. Rather, their body count will come from people who lose access to health care and die of preventable diseases, women who are forced to perform unsafe abortions or carry dangerous pregnancies to term, African-Americans murdered by the police because of the absence of law enforcement reforms, immigrants deported back to lethal situations, people of color killed by mob violence and the Dylan Roots that will take making “America Great Again” into their own gun slathered hands, and, of course, the thousands—or perhaps millions—of people who will die from the effects of climate change. One of the primary motivations for organizing resistance to Trump is to prevent, as much as possible, the harm he can do. But how?
All works of art seek to establish some kind of applicability, whether it is as direct as we see in The Curfew, or more abstract, esoteric, dialectic, or self-referential. Literature argues for its own relevance. In The Curfew, Ball cultivates a comfort with death and violence before introducing the method of disgovernance, creating in the reader an atypical acceptance of random acts of deadly violence.
The novel opens with a violent and confusing scene, “There was a great deal of shouting and then a shot…An old woman was bleeding hunched over a bench. Two men were standing fifty feet away, one holding a gun. Some ten feet from the bench, a man was lying underneath the wheels of a truck, which seemed to have injured him, perhaps irreparably.” Despite the two dead bodies, this opening passage is disconcertingly passive. There was a “shot” and one man was “holding a gun,” but, in the prose, no one “shoots the old woman.” Furthermore, the other man wasn’t “run over by a truck” but is simply “lying beneath the wheels” and he isn’t mortally wounded or dead, he just “seemed” to be “injured…perhaps irreparably.” This first scene in the book is one of significant violence, but Ball uses a series of passive constructions to dim that violence, so the bloodshed does not feel as visceral as it should.
After this opening, we shadow William Drysdale on his work day. Violence follows him as he goes from assignment to assignment, including: “I was walking under the bridge on Seventh. There was a shout and she came down, hit not twenty feet in front of me.” Furthermore, as an epitaphorist, every job is an assertion of death. His first stone is for a man who died at 92, his second is for a nine-year-old girl who was beheaded by a slate tile thrown from the roof by the wind (or perhaps by a hand at a different target), and his third is for a butcher’s father (a person whose day job is the parceling of corpses). He then meets with the parents and widow of a young man who “died in the night, two weeks ago…—There is no body. The body was taken—a political disappearance by the government. His final assignment for the day is with a fisherman who has chosen to compose his gravestone on what he considers his happiest day. It is the fisherman’s third stone. Even the most directly affirmative moment in the book is affirmed by death.
In the world of The Curfew, violence is the fundamental unit of resistance, but the violence in our world is very different, especially when considered in light of likely targets and the persistence (at least at time of writing) of other norms, conventions, checks and balances, and laws that ostensibly prevent acts of violence on both sides of governing conflicts. Furthermore, American resistance, even revolution, has decided on a commitment to nonviolent actions, even when oppressors resort to violence. For a whole range of historic, moral, even practical reasons, causing “harm” does not seem like our fundamental unit of resistance. But, as the characters in The Curfew do, we should find a fundamental unit of resistance for our world and build from there.
Instead of harm, our unit of resistance should be refusal: the fundamental “no.” Our method of disgovernance under Trump could be: “Whenever a representative or surrogate of the Trump administration or the Republican Party it now leads asks you something, you refuse.” Don’t perform at or attend his events, or serve in his administration, or vote for any of the policies offered by Republicans, or join him for a photo op. Refuse to let them speak at your college and if the administration invites them anyway refuse to attend. Refuse to let them eat at your restaurant or shop at your store. Refuse to let them hold rallies at your venues.
Part of the value of having a fundamental unit of resistance is that it allows us to, as thoughtfully as possible, respond to people who are comfortable acting thoughtlessly. The barrage of legislation and hearings and executive orders along with the constant stream of scandalous tweets and reports, combine to make it almost impossible to respond with any kind of thought to anything Trump and the Republicans are doing. I’m sure that is, at least in part, a tactic designed to overwhelm opposition and, in part, the hubris of believing without doubt or nuance in your own rightness. But, if our basic unit is refusal, we at least have something we can instantly respond with.
Obviously, those of us who are not members of Congress, business leaders, or celebrities in some field, will have few options for directly refusing the Trump administration, but, that to me is part of the strength of a fundamental unit of resistance. It is simply a base. Just like the characters in The Curfew, we are able to sculpt our own actions to our own circumstances.
Resistance is, in essence, a reaction, and one of the challenges we’ll face—especially if one of the chambers of Congress is not flipped in 2018—is discovering and discerning what the fuck we should do on the fly. But even though resistance must always be flexible, must be new when the threat is new, must find ways to both respond and be one step ahead, a base is useful. I suspect, over the next months, as Trump establishes his patterns and as those who have studied resistance more than I begin and continue to lay out theory and ideas, this base will grow in sophistication, but we can start with responding to every request from the Trump administration with “I refuse.”
My desk is cluttered with books, unopened mail, receipts, scraps of paper I’ve written notes on, notebooks, and coffee mugs. My phone notifies me that I have a text from Daily Action or Planned Parenthood telling me who of my elected officials I should call today and why. From the text messages, Make 5 Calls, Flippable, Swing Left, the people I follow on Twitter, and the dozens of emails I get, I’ll decide what small action in the resistance I will take today. Maybe it will be subscribing to one of the newspapers working to expose the corruption and malfeasance of the administration or a donation to one of the organizations mitigating its impact, like the ACLU or MIRA or the Southern Poverty Law Center, or I’ll support one of the Democrats running for the House in a special election in some way, or I’ll badger friends and family in Maine who are represented in Congress by Republicans to make calls, send emails, and visit offices. It may be taking care of myself with a day off social media and a long walk so I don’t burn out. It may be working on this essay.
…the method of disgovernance is a lifestyle. Resistance must be as well.
Hiding behind the idea of “harm,” behind all the violence, perhaps even behind Ball’s own lyricism, the method of disgovernance makes another powerful statement about resistance, one I was only able to hear after revisiting these ideas and after six months of thinking of myself as part of the resistance: the method of disgovernance is a lifestyle. Resistance must be as well. The term “lifestyle” can be intimidating, but resistance as a lifestyle doesn’t mean giving your life to the resistance. We resist, in part, so we and other people can live around idiosyncratic sources of joy. Consider “reading as a lifestyle,” for example. As readers, we still go to work, have dinner, get drunk, binge watch TV, and fritter away our lives on social media. We still sleep, go out on dates, miss the train, forget our keys, and get a bagel in the afternoon after swearing that salad at lunch was enough. And yet, we make time to read, to visit the bookstore, talk to booksellers, rate books online, research reviews, and maybe even join a book club. We do other things during our day, but no day feels complete if we haven’t done at least a little reading.
I don’t know if we’ll be able to prevent the rise of fascism in the United States and I have even less faith that we will be able to prevent Trump from doing irreparable harm to our world, but we must fight nonetheless. We must turn the world of our experience to the problem of resistance. For me, that world is quite often books, and from The Curfew I’ve built my fundamental refusal. And no day feels complete if I haven’t done at least a little resisting.
Josh Cook is the author of the Kirkus-starred novel, AN EXAGGERATED MURDER, published by Melville House in March 2015. His fiction and other work has appeared in The Coe Review, Epicenter Magazine, The Owen Wister Review, Barge, Plume Poetry Anthology 2012 and 2013, and elsewhere. He was a finalist in the 2011 and 2012 Cupboard Fiction Contest. His criticism has appeared in the Huffington Post Books, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Fiction Advocate, Bookslut, The Millions, The Rumpus and elsewhere. He is a bookseller with Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA.