In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook published Plotto, a practical guide to narrative construction. In it, he sets out a general schematic that his readers, or “plottoists,” would do well to keep in mind: An individual with certain attributes encounters some difficulty or complication, which is then addressed and/or resolved. Cook goes on to elaborate hundreds of possible complications, while cross-referencing individuals with certain attributes who might have encountered them and detailing ways the situation could turn out. Whether or not Jesse Ball is familiar with Cook’s endlessly permutable plot boiler, something of its spirit animates his second novel, The Way Through Doors.
After an amnesiac woman is literally flung into his arms, a young man named Selah Morse must (says a doctor) keep her awake for eighteen hours. Morse decides that the best way to do this is to ply her with mint juleps and make up eighteen hours’ worth of interconnected stories in which she may come to recognize herself. The remainder of The Way Through Doors consists of these stories, featuring multiple versions of Morse trying to track down multiple versions of the young woman with multiple obstacles placed in his path. Scheherazade, look out.
Ball, whose last novel, Samedi the Deafness (2007), was also constructed of labyrinthine identities, allows his narrative to overwhelm the book’s framing device, and we never quite return to where we started (Morse’s apartment). The search takes Morse and his surrogates through a variety of landscapes; some are torn straight out of folk tales—dogs play fiddles, sinister blacksmiths are at large, and forbidding strangers prowl country lanes—and some approximate a vaguely enchanted New York. In the latter, we encounter Morse’s most appealing creations: the “guess artist,” an amiable sidekick who can read people’s minds; the city’s tallest building, whose height stretches mostly down, below the street’s surface, and which is populated by foxes who pretend to be human and live in the basement in a saltbox house on a sunlit meadow cut by a stream; and Morse himself—tale teller, eccentric pamphleteer, and mysterious “municipal inspector” able to open any door anytime with a flash of his badge.
That the young woman in her various incarnations is as unknown and unknowable at novel’s end as at its beginning makes good sense. Readers, after all, have been listening to Morse’s tales, and tales within tales, while she has been called away to act in them and to utter (through the mouths of proxies and doppelgängers) apposite maxims: “Stories tell themselves one to another, over and over, never ceasing, and we skip here and there, saying this is consciousness, this acrobatic feat.” We—not Morse, not the young woman—are asked to recognize ourselves in this marvelous, Escher-inflected labyrinth of plot.