If you’ve ever thought book reviewing was a questionable business — so opinionated! so subjective! — this may be the review to prove you right. Not only do I have no idea what any prospective reader might make of “Silence Once Begun,” the new novel from American poet Jesse Ball, I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it myself.
In one sense, that’s a very good thing indeed. In these days of identikit publishing, where each breakthrough novel seemingly releases a torrent of genre imitators — from “Scandi crime” to “mummy porn” — a novel that lacks simple comparators and defies easy conclusions is refreshing. On the other hand, when you can’t decide whether a book is really rather good, or actually pretty awful, it doesn’t make for a rewarding reading experience.
“Silence Once Begun” documents the present-day efforts of an American named Jesse Ball (you see what he’s done there) to uncover the truth behind a series of apparent abductions, possibly murders, in Japan in the late 1970s. Dubbed the Narito Disappearances, Jesse (the character) tells us, the mysterious case was resolved by the confession of a 27-year-old man named Oda Sotatsu.
We are told at the outset that Oda only confessed as the forfeit for losing a wager. Despite this, he goes to his execution without uttering a word to save himself — his silence, once begun, is carried through to its inexorable conclusion: his death.
“Silence Once Begun” is presented chiefly as a sequence of transcripts of interviews conducted by Jesse with Oda’s family, a court reporter, a guard from death row and, finally, with two people — Jito Joo and Sato Kakuzo — involved in that initial, fatal wager. But this is no crime procedural.
Only brief fragments of interviews are included, and the entire novel takes no more than a few hours to read. It is clear that neither Jesse, nor his subjects, are reliable. Transcripts obtained from the police are noted as “possibly altered or shoddily made”; notes shared with him are of uncertain dating and audio recordings are of poor quality; one interviewee provokes a feverish response in Jesse, while he speculates baselessly about the reliability of others.
Tricksiness in storytelling can be a wonderful thing — it is a sharp and peculiar pleasure to feel like a mouse beneath an author’s paw, toyed with, released, only to be caught again. But here the clever narrative tricks are undermined by stylistic excess and irritating anomalies.
What language is supposedly being used between Jesse and those he meets, for example? He makes it plain that he does not speak Japanese well, and it seems unlikely that all of his interviewees would have the fluency in English displayed in the transcripts, conversations and letters. Jesse makes a show of striving for factual impartiality — with frequent fussy disclaimers, and observations as to provenance and reliability of documents he cites — yet includes digressions on his own personal life and a impassioned exchange of letters with one of his subjects. Are we supposed to conclude that he is insufficiently self-aware to realize that his mask of objectivity has slipped? That seems implausible.
And then there is the prose. Workaday to begin with, reflecting the no-nonsense business of investigation, as Jesse becomes increasingly enmeshed in the history he is trying to unravel the narrative takes a quantum leap into something resembling prose-poetry. This is unsurprising, perhaps, in a prose work by a poet, but the ostentatiously ornate writing jars. It’s as though we’ve been transported from Oda Sotatsu’s jail cell into a freshman seminar session of Creative Writing 101.
Then, just as I was prepared to put this book down — review obligations be damned! — Ball (the author, not his self-named protagonist) pulls out of the bag a beautiful, unforeseen and yet somehow inevitable ending. The true nature of the Narito Disappearances is revealed, and it has the elegance of an ageless morality tale.
What we do not get is an answer to the question that has propelled us through the narrative: why Oda confessed to a crime he did not commit. This, too, is satisfying. Oda’s silence, once begun, is absolute. He does not speak to his family or his friends, even on pain of execution, so why should we readers presume he will speak to us?
The real Jesse Ball teaches writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he has given classes on lucid dreaming and lying. The story of Oda Sotatsu and of the other Jesse Ball partakes of both. It lies, as when the prefatory page states ‘The following work of fiction is partially based on fact’. It is not. (As Ball told trade journal Publisher’s Weekly: “The facts that the book is based on are archetypal facts. The situations and extrapolations are based on the truth as it stands in the world.”) And there is something dreamlike in its progressive renunciation of both plain fact and plain language.
“Silence Once Begun” is an accomplished work, but for me, at least, one written with more art than heart. Still, although it’s only January, I confidently predict you won’t read another book quite like it all year.