The OF Blog: Jesse Ball, Silence Once Begun

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Jesse Ball, Silence Once Begun

The story of Oda Sotatsu begins with a confession that he signed.

He had fallen in with a man named Kakuzo and a girl named Jito Joo.  These were somewhat wild characters, particularly Sato Kakuzo.  He was in trouble, or had been.  People knew it.

Now this is what happened:  somehow Kakuzo met Oda Sotatsu, and somehow he convinced him to sign a confession for a crime that he had not committed.

That he should sign a confession for a crime that he did not commit is strange.  It is hard to believe.  Yet, he did in fact sign it.  When I learned of these events, and when I researched them, I found that there was a reason he did so, and that reason is – he was compelled to by a wager. (p. 12 iPad iBooks e-edition)

This quote, taken from the opening page of Jesse Ball's fourth novel, Silence Once Begun, immediately grabs the reader's attention.  Just who is Oda Sotatsu and why in the world would he ever agree to sign his name to a confession after losing a bet?  More importantly, to what did he actually confess?  It is with this little mystery that a fictional Jesse Ball begins his interrogation/interviewing with those who should have known Sotatsu and yet whose various accounts paint conflicting images of a man who became silent after his false confession led to his conviction.

Silence Once Begun could be described as a crime/procedural novel.  So too could Franz Kafka's The Trial.  Although Silence Once Begun bears very little surface similarity to Kafka's acclaimed "unfinished" novel, there certainly is the sense in both novels of reality coming to stand for something else.  Here in Ball's novel, with its meticulous reproduction of a faux set of interviews and statements, the verisimilitude serves to underscore the very trappings of "reality" that the interview/deposition structure has created.  Just who is this silent guy and what has he confessed to?  Ball very skillfully teases us with snippets of answers, of events that lead to public outrage when Sotatsu is arrested for his (false) confession.  Just as K. is confronted with a stream of testimony against him for acts he himself does not understand, Sotatsu's acquaintances provide all sorts of conflicting testimony as to the sort of person he may or may not have been.  These contrasting reports simultaneously muddy the composite image of Sotatsu that we may have formed and they sharpen our view of him and the reasons behind not just his signature to a flase confession, but also to his subsequent silence.  Below is an excerpt from an interview with one of the key people in this case:

I believe in discovering the love that exists and then trying to understand it.  Not to invent a love and try to make it exist, but to find what does exist, and then to see what it is.  I believe in trying to understand such love through other loves, other loves that have existed before.  Many people have made the records of these loves.  These records can be found.  They can be read.  Some are songs.  Some are just photographs.  Most are stories.  I have always sought after love, and longed for it.  I have looked for all the kinds that may be.  I am writing to you now to talk about Oda Sotatsu, who is a person I loved, and who loved me.  Although I know there are others who will say things about Oda Sotatsu, who may say things about me, who may know about this situation, although they are few, perhaps there are some who can speak about these things, yet what I know is what I felt and what I saw.  I am not writing this for any comparison or for any other sort of understanding, but as a record of love, for use by those who love and who hope to love.  I am not nimble and I cannot hide things well.  I will write what I felt and how.  You may see how I do. (p. 180 e-book)

Ball very carefully develops Sotatsu's character through these character deposition/interviews.  While he himself may be silent, those around him are not, even if their comments may be at odds with one another.  This approach toward characterization takes a lot of work, as not only is the character himself largely absent from the actual narrative, if there is a single false note, a singular time where the words are not placed just so and the dialogue not pitch-perfect, then the entire enterprise would collapse like a deck of cards.  Ball, however, manages to weave his way through this narrative labyrinth, creating a fascinating character stuck in a nebulous yet increasingly dangerous situation (sometimes, what certain characters left unstated or edited out of their comments say much more than their actual words).

Not only does Ball manage to plot well, but the prose does several things.  Look at the passage quoted just above.  The way this character voices her feelings, there is the sense that she is saying something that may prove to be opposite of what she professes.  It is easy to accept the claim that she is "not nimble and I cannot hide things well" at face value, but there is that niggling sense that she may be covering up something, perhaps something very vital to understanding what has been transpiring ever since Sotatsu signed his name to that false confession.

Silence Once Begun is not a novel to be read quickly.  Its seeming forthrightness belies the layers of deception that are occurring underneath.  Due to Ball's carefully constructed interviews, the plot is very intricate and requires some attention to detail from the reader in order for the mystery to be interpreted, if not completely solved.  Yet the effort more than amply rewards the careful, patient reader, as Silence Once Begun is one of those rare novels whose form and structure are so well executed that they, along with the narrative and plot, can be appreciated for just how well it all comes together by the end.  Highly recommended.

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