The Divers’ Game by Jesse Ball
Ecco, September 2019
240 pages / Amazon
It would be an oversimplification to call Jesse Ball’s latest novel, The Divers’ Game, a work of dystopian fiction. As a novelist, Ball often inhabits in-between spaces, building convincing distorted near-futures to tell a story grounded in emotional or philosophical inquiry that feels contemporary, universal, and entirely human. This was the case with his previous novel, Census, and the National Book Award-nominated A Cure for Suicide. In both of those masterful works, as in The Divers’ Game, Ball presents his version of a reality readers can recognize—twisted enough to be rich with fable; human enough to inspire poignance; and inventive enough to be entirely his own.
Admittedly, Ball’s vision of America in The Divers’ Game hits close to home, as if reality has been lifted from the headlines and filtered through the fabulist’s own earnest and attentive eye.
Here is how the world of The Divers’ Game works: In America, there are Pats and there are Quads. Pats are free to live as they wish, while Quads—a group encompassing the poorest citizens, as well as criminals and refugees—are confined within slums called “quadrants.” Their right thumbs are severed, and their cheeks are marked with—wait for it—the tattoo of a red hat. In this shadow world evoking America’s violence toward immigrants and disdain for the poor, Quads are not legally considered people.
A Pat professor named Mandred explains the ghastly system to his students—and, conveniently, to readers: “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.”
Pats travel with a gas mask and several canisters of various torturous or deadly gases (“the yellow killing gas, the green incapacitating gas, the red gas that confuses, the brown gas that sickens, the slow killer”) with which they’re free to attack Quads on sight, with no repercussions.
Ball doesn’t string a single narrative through The Divers’ Game. Instead, he uses a nameless narrator to dip in and out of the lives of both Pats and Quads, offering artfully clipped excerpts of larger stories to illuminate the rampant and unfathomable violence, the rigid hierarchies within both worlds, and the conflict raging within the few members of the ruling class who retain shreds of empathy in a world where resistance is almost wholly flattened by cruelty.
Part I follows two college-aged women, Lethe and Lois, as they accompany Professor Mandred on a train trip to the zoo. (More of a museum, in fact—of all the animals who once lived there, only a single scraggly rabbit clings to life.) Functionally, the trip serves as an opportunity for Ball to explain the environment he’s crafted. The Pats, we learn, are preparing for Olgias’ Day, a sort of lawless festival in which all debts are resolved and all legal partnerships dissolved. Lethe wanders away from her companions and quickly finds herself in strange and potentially dangerous territory, face to face with a group of young Quads.
Meanwhile, the Quads are preparing for the Feast of the Infanta. Part 2 takes readers into Row House, “a terrible slum…the worst of the quads,” through the perspectives of several different characters, including the young girl charged with the dubious honor of playing the role of Infanta, riding in the head float at the raucous and occasionally violent festival, performing the ritual of punishing or absolving the “crimes” and “criminals” presented before her. Then there is the divers’ game, the dangerous—and deeply symbolic—game that Quad children dare each other to play, passing through a tunnel beneath an island, from one side of the lake to the other, at risk of drowning.
Like a poet circling an ineffable central truth, Ball keeps readers at bay, coming in slant and offering slivers of life to illustrate this barbaric caste system—and to communicate an essential truth about what such violence does to the hearts and minds of both the oppressors and the oppressed.
Part 3 is gutting and cumulative, the heart of what Ball wants to say. It is a suicide note, written by a Pat woman who has, on reflex, gassed a Quad in the park.
“We are maintained by a violence so complete, it is like air,” the woman writes. “And because of that, I would rather die than anything, rather die than be alive.”
The Divers’ Game functions as an allegory of cruelty, a world produced by an imagination but well-steeped in the violence of our present day. It’s a world crafted by powerful detail and raw emotion. If there’s something Ball’s characters are good at, it’s living up to the worst of what’s asked of them. Expressing and admitting empathy, forging connections across those hierarchies—Ball’s characters often fail to meet these challenges.
Perhaps, The Divers’ Game seems to suggest, if we were put into a similar scenario, we would fail, too. Perhaps we already are.
Justin Brouckaert‘s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Passages North, Catapult, Bat City Review and many other publications. He lives in the greater NYC area.