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The Divers’ Game: A strange and cruel world brought to life

Book review: In Jesse Ball’s new novel people can be gassed by those with more privelege

The Divers’ Game
The Divers’ Game
Author: Jesse Ball
ISBN-13: 978-1-78378-587-2
Publisher: Granta
Guideline Price: £14.99

Lois and Lethe, two characters in American author Jesse Ball’s affecting and strange new novel The Divers’ Game, are in many respects just like any other privileged, outspoken young people. Lois is rich, and she doesn’t question her place in society, while Lethe is cultivating a conscience and educates herself about inequality. They envy each other’s clothes and possessions, argue with lecturers about gendered language, experiment romantically with each other when no one is looking, and don’t want to grow old. They also ask each other, “Do you ever think about gassing someone?” They’re exploring what it is to be people in the world; in their world, though, people gas the less privileged in perceived circumstances of threat or even “if you just wanted to”.

After the arrival of a large amount of refugees in the recent past, the ruling class of the book’s unnamed nation decided to afford these newcomers “no legal standing as persons”. The resultant two-tier society is split into “pats” who inhabit cities, and permanent societal outsiders named quads after the “Quadrants” where they may live in a version of safety. (They can be harmed or killed for whatever reason, but in their even more lawless Quadrants they can kill pats, because it “would have happened within precivilised space”.) Quads can be distinguished by a missing right thumb and a facial brand. But what really differentiates them is not carrying gas masks, which protect pats and leave others vulnerable.

It becomes quickly apparent that no one’s capacity to feel is unscathed by Ball’s cruel world. The first quads we meet seem kind and offer to help Lethe when she is lost, until they extort and threaten her. We spend a significant amount of time with Lessen, a very young quad girl who has been picked to become the symbolic figurehead in an archaic pageant called The Festival of the Infanta, where she must dispense almost arbitrary justice to a mob from a float. We observe her up close in all her vulnerability, worrying about getting “a little pee” on her elaborate Infanta dress, but even she quickly reveals herself to be a natural at cruelty: an instant despot. A boy, having been beaten, consoles himself only with thoughts of revenge. A long suicide note from one pat character is the ethical heart of the novel, yet is still performatively cruel to who it leaves behind. Sympathy for others is ultimately scorched from the book along with empathy: “it was the cry of the punished that there should be more-more punishment-more cruelty-more hate.”

The sympathy and empathy therefore is solely Ball’s to dispense, and he has tonnes of it to hand. In 2018’s Census, his only other novel to have been published this side of the Atlantic, a dying man travels to another unnamed country with his son, who has Down syndrome, recording its population and tattooing them. Rather than being an act of totalitarian surveillance, his census is an attempt to bear witness to the peculiarities of every life; to listen to people’s stories. It’s a marvellous book with seemingly unlimited ingenuity and generosity of spirit.


The Divers' Game can be quite hard to read for all the resonances it carries of real segregated societies

Here, it seems perhaps because of Ball’s generosity of spirit that he is able to write so well about people with such nastiness in their lives, and to do so even with a certain levity, moving from one perspective to the next and quickly giving each richness. Though it moves through perhaps too many characters for the room afforded by this small book. Powerful individual stories are told which could have been made yet more powerful if allowed to spend more time in one another’s company, becoming a sustained narrative rather than a magpie survey – or census – of a dark fairytale situation. “Instead of fairness there is just order and its consequences”, we are told. But I would have liked to see more consequences play out on the page. Ball’s approach has a sort of shock and spite to it, though; a structural brutality that reflects the world he’s made.

There are plenty of speculative futures being imagined right now by novelists. They respond to the rise of nationalism and insularity, refugee crises, and technological or environmental doomsday scenarios. One sometimes wonders whether their prevalence will dilute rather than give urgency to their worries. The Divers’ Game can be quite hard to read for all the resonances it carries of real segregated societies. And it is primarily Ball’s thorniness as a writer, his perverse streak tempered by an innocence similar to George Saunders that makes it easier to countenance the creation of them, and keeps them urgent.