“Everyone Is Around You, Very Close”: A Review of Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun
Silence Once Begun
by Jesse Ball
256 p. / $23.95
There’s a moment in Kurosawa’s Rashomon when the bandit is telling his side of the story and everything adds up until the samurai’s wife, who is currently knife-fighting the bandit, does something that alters reality and it’s all said in the motion of her hand. It’s my favorite part in the movie, takes place about thirty minutes in, and lasts only a few minutes. What happens: her hand goes from a blunt motion (stabbing the air with the knife in the direction of the laughing bandit) to her hand as a kind of cage over his mouth (fighting off his advances) and finally, her hand moves spider-like (it literally crawls and the motion is creepy and beautiful) up the bandit’s back as the camera pans tightly in a half-circle to the two kissing. It’s here you understand things are twisted and fucked and the following hour of film, shifting from narrator to narrator, stories folding in on each other and canceling each other out, creates a kind of swamp littered with contradictions you wade through trying to find the truth.
Jesse Ball’s fourth novel, Silence Once Begun, leans on Rashomon and the works of Kobe Abe, but to dwell on the influences too much would take away from the modern fun puzzle he has risked and created. The setting of Japan and the structure of shifting narrators all kind of dueling each other and vying for the reader’s truth-register is the most obvious take from Rashomon, but Ball makes the tale not only modern, but even more challenging in his layering. Just reading the table of contents and flipping through the book (dozens of interviews and transcripts and letters and photos and newspaper clippings and narrator notes, all spanning the entirety of the book, somehow) is thrilling, if a little exhausting, but you get an idea of what you’re in for. The size of story Ball is aiming at is extremely difficult to pull off, and the table of contents throws fire in your face, yet Silence Once Begun is his neatest and most complete feeling book so far.
The story is fairly complex with the narrator (Ball himself as a journalist in 2012) investigating the disappearances of eight people in Japan in 1977. Everything spins off of Oda Sotatsu, the troubled character at the center of the novel who signs a confession regarding the “Narito Disappearances,” is imprisoned, and then stops talking. Ball, as narrator, pieces together his interviews with Oda’s Mother, Brother, Father, Brother’s Wife, a reporters coverage of Oda’s trial, audio transcripts from prison guards interrogating Oda, Ball’s own feelings and confessions, and various letters from key players, to form the story and investigate if Oda did or did not actually play a role in the disappearances. Characters contradict each other, characters say not to trust other characters, and even Ball himself says several times his memory may be faulty, the audio recording may not be right, etc. Lying is a virtue in all Ball’s work (he teaches classes on lying in Chicago) and Silence is no exception. But where in his previous work lying was used as a charm device (for example, Samedi the Deafness, largely takes place in an asylum for liars and is a catalyst for plenty of weird shit like an egg room, a shifty pickpocket, twins, an invisible owl friend, etc) here it’s used to tell a story that is all together intimately heartbreaking, and on a larger scale, a social critique of an “action first” judicial system that needs an answer, aka Oda’s confession and eventual execution, to justify its own existence.
Those familiar with Ball’s previous work will notice a shift here to a more cerebral, plot structured first-person whodunit, told mainly in flowerless dialog, and there’s even a fairly air-tight ending where before he made the case for ambiguity. But the element of surprise has always been one of Ball’s most important and useful tricks, and here he doesn’t disappoint or pull-back in the slightest. Silence Once Begun may be pushed by Pantheon as his breakout mainstream novel (it’s his first in hardcover and the murder-mystery angle will bring in new eyes for sure) but at its roots the novel is a fresh and experimental folktale and Ball’s darkest and most heartfelt book.
Of course there’s plenty of surprise and charm and delightful portals scattered throughout the relative flatness of the interviews, transcriptions, and letters. Early on we get a brief back-story from Oda’s Mother regarding waterfalls: “When you were four, your father and I had a thought that we should perhaps travel to different waterfalls, that it might be a good thing to see all the waterfalls we could. So, we began to go to waterfalls whenever we had a chance. That year I believe we saw thirty waterfalls, in many places.” There’s a few more of these whimsical slices (the four page “fable of the stonecutter” near the end is striking for its telling of larger things) but where Ball really excels, and what is different for him, is how his fundamental storytelling and emotional needle is strengthened not through the whimsy and charming, but the brutal and graved. One section that demonstrates this well is just past the halfway point where Garo, a guard working the prison where Oda is kept, explains the execution process. What follows is a three page solid block of text detailing every step the guilty one takes. You, the reader, is told what the soon-to-be-executed sees even up to the point where he is blindfolded and things change senses: “You feel the space around you. The guards touch your shoulders and your head. They lay something over your head, down over the blindfold. They are so gentle with you, like barbers. It is a rope they have laid upon your neck. The rope is laid like a stiff collar on a new dress shirt, and made snug. Everyone is around you, very close. Then, delicately, they remove their hands from you, from off your shoulders, your neck, your arms. Now it is quiet.” Each sentence functions as a short blunt step closer to the inevitable.
Ball’s skill as a poet do come on stronger toward the end, largely in the form of a nearly twenty page letter from Oda’s twisted lover, Jito Joo, and followed by the explanation and tie-up from Joo’s on/off boyfriend, the mastermind under the engine of the plot, Kakuzo. Here the language represents more of what Ball did in my favorite of his novels, The Way Through Doors, and it’s these sections where readers will either be skeptical on the unfolding reasons for Oda’s signed confession (you never really believe he actually committed the crimes) or will feel the spider-like hand moving up his or her back and feel even more gripped in the puzzle box Ball has constructed.
Again, I want to drive home how risky this novel is and how well Ball pulls it off. Where in his previous novel, The Curfew, he played it relatively safe and stayed close to what he knows best, Silence pushes all his buttons and skills into new dark territory and the result is exceptional. For what many will consider a “page-turner” (and really, it does move lightning fast for all the jumps between narrators and storytelling devices) its structure is so delicate, so complicated, it’s awe-inspiring it doesn’t crumble. Some will push away near the end, I predict, and be unhappy or feel slighted by the ending and explanation after all the trap doors and mazes, but it felt right and fitting to me and actually made the book seem bigger. I was glad to see it move away from what was becoming a love story (Ball the narrator even turns inward and confesses some life happenings in the romance department which I found moving) with somewhat limited possibilities. It’s hard to discuss further without giving the ending and surprise away, but that’s how Ball has always written his books and Silence Once Begun proves to be his greatest magic trick yet.