The Quiet Life

Jesse Ball’s new novel, Silence Once Begun, rises above metafiction to read as tragedy

All pages are blank at heart, however much a story tries to conceal it. Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun is the whitest book I’ve laid eyes on in a long time, though I don’t say so to suggest any kinship with Wallace Stegner (or E. B. White, Edmund White, or White Castle). It’s rather that the novel, Ball’s fourth and his first in hardcover, is most striking, initially, for its generous margins. There are an average of five line breaks per page, plus chapter headings that run vertical to each paragraph so as to shave an inch of type from the top of each, plus plenty of indented block text, and one entirely blank page facing another whose whiteness is marred only by a plus sign.

As becomes gradually, maddeningly clear over the course of the novel, the whiteness represents silence, the silence that language labors to interrupt and writing to blot out. It is a manifestation of the unspeakable, which foils the writer’s efforts to interpret and the reader’s to understand. In a novel primarily concerned with speechlessness and disappearance, these white pages are illustrations, depicting absence itself.

When the field research, interviews, and transcriptions that comprise Silence Once Begun are eventually overtaken by the same indefinite and elusive silence that they have described, we can be sure that it is despite the best efforts of its narrator. He is also named Jesse Ball, though he refers to himself throughout the manuscript as Int., for Interviewer. He has come to a village in Japan’s Osaka Prefecture armed with a tape recorder to investigate an incident known as the Narito Disappearances of 1977, when eight old men and women disappeared from their homes without any sign of a struggle, leaving only a single playing card as valediction. Shortly thereafter, one Oda Sotatsu, a thread salesman and virtual nonentity, met with two “wild characters” named Jito Joo and Sato Kakuzo and signed a confession taking responsibility for the disappearances. He refused to offer any additional statement, either in his defense or against it, other than to affirm the written confession. In fact, he remained completely silent from the day in October when he was first taken into custody until his execution for the crimes in the spring.

Why has the Interviewer undertaken this record? We know only that “a strange thing happened,” whereupon his lover, like Sotatsu, suddenly ceased speaking. Thus, if we believe the frame, the Interviewer is on some level restaging his own trauma. But it is an open question whether anyone is to be believed here, in this place where people disappear, the guilty party is to be convicted by paper instead of evidence, and silence speaks louder than words.

The events described may be true, or at least something like it may once have occurred (“the following work of fiction,” a prefatory note tells us, “is partially based on fact”), but what matters is that the Interviewer treats them as true. The copious interviews he conducts—with Sotatsu’s mother, devoted brother Jiro, and grudging father, as well as with a prison guard and, at length, the mysterious Jito Joo and demoniacal Kakuzo—make faithful note not only of the often heartbreaking circumstances surrounding each interview but also the white noise of the world that sputters on in the wake of Sotatu’s silence. Tape crackles, children wander in and out of the rooms, and a witness’s testimony may end abruptly or prove inconclusive. Sotatsu, of course, leaves very few clues to his story beyond a short letter to his family, a scarf, some jazz records, and several bird statues. There is supplementary material in the form of 17 photographs (Ball is a photographer), a poem (Ball is also a poet), and a pair of oddly familiar fables, one about a man who falls in love with a tree and the other about a king who dreams he is a stonecutter. (Ball teaches a class on lucid dreaming, though at this point it is hard to believe he finds time to sleep at all.) And yet, for all Ball the Interviewer’s exhaustiveness in uncovering Sotatsu’s secret, the feeling remains that he can only scratch the surface. The story Ball the author has made is too sprawling in its silence and grave in its sadness to be breached by competence alone.

Ball’s previous novels are sparse and concentrated journeys of self-contained logic that are more straightforwardly fabulist than the fragmentary, fretful Silence. His first, 2007’s Samedi the Deafness, was a phantasmagoria of shifting identity, lies, and ciphers that, frankly, reads like Paul Auster without all the shit. The metafiction is both boon and Achilles heel. Auster’s New York is a vaguely dadaist puzzlebox that nonetheless feeds back into recognizably—sometimes too recognizably—human stories. But there’s really not much chance of mistaking the hermetic reality of Samedi for ours. The twists diminish in their returns; if anything is possible how can any gesture, however amusing, have more urgency than any another?

The Way Through Doors (2009) was a series of nested stories that called up comparisons to Italo Calvino; The Curfew (2011) was a lean dystopia that upended readerly expectations, except expectations for Ball, who had seemingly settled into a restlessly imaginative, if somewhat light and mannered, dreamtime. The best and worst you could say of these books is that they were their own frames of mind. If Ball the lucid dreamer was an author of more temporary pleasures than Borges the memorious librarian or Kafka the self-abnegating bureaucrat, it was because the world never quite followed him into fancy. The Curfew’s totalitarian army was a device on loan from more politically engaged doomsdays like 1984. When Samedi revealed that twin sisters might actually be a single deceiver, the reader’s response was bound to be game curiosity rather than outright astonishment. These three books inspire appreciative wonder, yes, but also feel weightless.

All this might explain why Silence Once Begun adopts such a different tack. Here, we encounter an anxiety we recognize from the first page as of this world, albeit the inexplicable and often horrible part of the world where language cannot penetrate. What is required, the Int. realizes, is “a thing that makes sense from these silences, the silence of my wife, the silence of Oda Sotatsu, the stretching on seemingly pointlessly, of life, day after day with no one to call it off.” What is required, in other words, is a common tongue.

Ball has said that he writes quickly, but Silence reads as too painstakingly polyphonic to have arrived with speed. Perhaps the most courageous thing a writer can do, if he’s been lucky enough to have established an immediately distinctive style and devoted readership, is refuse what comes easily. Had Silence Once Begun continued in the mode of The Curfew, the silence of Sotatsu might have been a riddle, fable, or kneejerk metafiction—when what it is instead is a tragedy.

Sotatsu undergoes a gauntlet of mortifications for his confession, but it isn’t his hunger strike, show trial, the way visitors to his cell say he holds his mouth the way that “if people didn’t use their mouths for talking anymore … they would all hold their mouths,” or even the unflinchingly procedural four-page description of his execution that most communicates the cost of his silence. Rather, it is the talk of others. The anguish of the father forced by community pressure to disown his son and the mother who recalls Sotatsu’s childhood even as she declares that they will no longer speak his name are second only to the laments of Jiro, haunted Jiro, the brother who will not give up on the childhood companion with whom he remembers exploring the dilapidated countryside. Here is Jiro recalling one of his many arguments with his father following Sotatsu’s conviction:

I told him that I didn’t believe Sotatsu had done anything wrong. I said I didn’t like any of it from the beginning to the end. He said that I was still stupid, and had always been so. That whether Sotatsu had done something or not was not the point and never had been. He said that you had a chance with each life, each person’s life, that there was a chance to get along without drawing the wrong kind of attention to yourself. That if you did, it was never good, it always ended badly, and the facts of the matter were nothing, were no good. He said I had a liar’s respect for the truth, which is too much respect.

Can any system calling itself the law, predicated on evidence, arrive at truth when self-interest—the responsibility Sotatsu has shirked—so often overrides any pretension toward order? This turns out to be an early appearance of the anarchic philosophy that dominates the novel’s shocking last section, but what’s more immediately salient is the depiction of individuals failing catastrophically to understand one another. “This is what we bear,” the Interviewer thinks, “the nearness of other lives.” If not for the futility Ball’s ventriloquism demonstrates, we’d be in the same territory as in Ry?nosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove” (the story Akira Kurosawa made into Rashomon).

But whereas in Akutagawa the lies and limitations of the witnesses obscure an original sequence that has only been fragmented (and withheld by the narrative), in Silence the fragmentation is inborn. Society itself is fragmented, the motives of individuals may be ultimately unknowable, the dead and disappeared keep their secrets. To speak is to organize, interpret, and judge, but we what we encounter throughout the novel—whether in the idle talk of the compromised townsfolk, the inscrutability of the innocent Sotatsu, or in the margins themselves—is the unspeakable. And what we cannot speak about must be passed over in silence.

The novel’s only truly false note arrives in a brief middle section, when the narrator, in search of Jito Joo, credits an unlikely book called Any Trick to Finding (“about an Austrian huntsman,” no less) for his knack at smelling out his otherwise invisible prey. It’s a fun bit, but feels like it’s in the wrong book. Not so Jito Joo, known to have been Sotatso’s only confidante in his last days, a deeply sensitive woman in the “fourth part” of her life. (“It has been a false portion. In my estimation, they give you the false portion last.”) She has experienced both love and silence intimately enough, throughout her other three, to be something of an authority:

Of silence, I can say only what I heard, that all things are known by that which they make or leave—and so speech isn’t itself, but its effect, and silence is the same. If there were a silent kingdom and but one could speak—he would be the king of an ageless beauty. But of course, here where we are, here there is no end to speaking and the time comes when speaking is less than saying nothing. But still we struggle on.

Sotatsu may have kept his vow in the end but, in the person of Jito, transfigured by her love for a mute prisoner, the Interviewer finds a trace of the unselfish, sublime connection that has likely been his real quarry, Austrian huntsman or no Austrian huntsman. Something good at last then, a hopeful note in the din of misunderstanding. Call it a noise canceller.

Noticeably, Joo is the only character who prefers to express herself in writing rather than foggy and digressive speech, and this gives Ball the opportunity to freestyle in a section that is the book’s most beautiful. But maybe it’s still worth being critical of a love that has to be doomed to be real, especially as delivered by the kind of self-sacrificing fairy-tale female that we’re supposed to be through with. Certainly there are lines like “She dries her hair with her tears and washes her skin with names and names and names” that will test readers’ credulity. Yet this is only a problem if we believe that Joo is meant to be Ball’s answer to the silence that claimed Sotatsu (and the Interviewer’s own lover), and that is not the case. Joo’s testimony makes up the novel’s fourth portion, the false portion. The real answer to the Narito Disappearances appears in the long-awaited confession of Sato Kakuzo, the Dostoyevskian criminal mastermind who holds the key to Joo’s compliance and Sotatsu’s martyrdom and who delivers a lucid, articulate indictment of the stories we use to fill in the blank spaces in our reason.

About these revelations, I too must be silent, except to say that Silence Once Begun has become a political novel by the time the Interviewer’s tape clicks to its end, having been many other kinds of novel in the interim. If it is seemingly none of these things completely, it may be because words cannot complete an event. They only diffuse it. The last we hear of the Interviewer is his surprise that no one before now has written on the Narito Disappearances. And so the beguiling and instantly classic Silence Once Begun exists to fill in a missing part of the world. A part which, on further inspection, was never there in the first place.