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
Jesse Ball: His writing has a perverse streak tempered by an innocence
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.