Jesse Ball reinvents the novel with new book

Published: March 9 2014 | 7:00 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:20 am in

‘Silence Once Begun,” the latest novel from Jesse Ball, explores the fictional Narito Disappearances of 1977, where eight solitary people between the ages of 50 and 70 disappeared from their homes, a single playing card discovered on the door of each residence. A signed confession is then delivered to the police and Oda Sotatsu, a young, disenchanted thread salesman, is arrested — but he refuses to admit to the crime and remains silent, even when he is jailed, tried and eventually hanged.

These events unfold in the opening pages of the novel and our narrator, also named Jesse Ball, becomes fascinated not only with Sotatsu’s confession but with his silence. Ball conducts a series of interviews with Sotatsu’s family, jailers and the two people who supplied Sotatsu with the confession. The result is a complex narrative detailing “the absurd lengths to which human beings go to prove themselves reasonable.”

This is an unusual novel, both in terms of narrative structure and physical layout. Ball takes readers from interview to interview, with a page or two of “Interviewer’s notes” in between. It becomes clear that no one he interviews can be trusted fully, and in order to understand Sotatsu and his silence, Ball must not look for what is missing but “find things by seeing what is there.”

“In searching for a way out of my own troubles, I had found my way into troubles of others, some long gone, and now I was trying to find my way back out, through their troubles, as if we human beings can ever learn from one another.”

Haunting and original, Ball succeeds in re-imagining what a novel can be.

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