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Silence Once Begun

A set of mysterious disappearances in Japan takes readers down a rabbit hole of deceit.

Silence Once Begun, by Jesse Ball, Knopf Doubleday, 256 pages

Like many author bios, Jesse Ball's notes his productivity (novels, collections of stories, and verse), his awards (honors from The Paris Review and Best American Poetry), and his teaching credentials. Yet only a detail in that last category really touches on what makes his work so interesting: Among the classes he's taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago is one on lying. What does one teach in such a course? A few years back I asked him about it during an interview. One assignment, he explained, involved telling a friend or family member something about them that is a) flattering and b) false.

"If somebody is fond of their quirkiness or their kindness," Ball said, "you involve that and say, 'Remember the time when you….' – and then you say this anecdote. The key is to get the person to verify it, and expand on the story. Which a surprising number of people do. You should try it."

No thanks. I'm sure it works, but I've seen enough evidence of gullibility in myself and others that I don't see much point in deliberately gathering more. Still, I admire Ball's willingness to expose our tendency toward – even admiration for – deceit, which has driven much of his knotty, Kafkaesque fiction. Ball is a fabulist whose work focuses on big lies, be they anti-government conspiracies (2007's "Samedi the Deafness"), police states (2011's "The Curfew"), or the scheme that drives his latest novel, Silence Once Begun, which takes his chosen theme to some provocative and rewarding extremes.

The novel is framed around the experience of a man named Oda Sotatsu, who in 1977 claimed responsibility for a series of disappearances in a Japanese town. Sotatsu is innocent, we are told (and the story that ensues supports it), but he is persuaded to sign a confession by a man named Sato Kakuzo and a woman named Jito Joo; the nature of this persuasion is kept mysterious. Once arrested, Sotatsu remained practically mute through his trial, conviction, and execution. Or did he actually have something to say? The first sections of the book are composed of transcripts of police interrogations from that time and recent interviews that the narrator (a writer named Jesse Ball) conducted with Sotatsu's family members, a journalist, and others in Sotatsu's orbit.

We're encouraged to distrust most of what we read. The interrogation transcripts are "possibly altered or shoddily made," and the family members routinely contradict each other. Ball himself is an unreliable narrator, introducing the book with an apology for moments where he has to summarize events relating to the disappearances in a "novelistic fashion" – a move he calls a "failing."  

Reading "Silence Once Begun" is meant to feel like paging through a cache of documents in a reporter's filing cabinet. Here, interview transcripts. There, excerpts from news stories. Tucked in the middle, curiously, pages of snapshots in Japan: a roller coaster, a train station, an aerial view, a field. It's not clear exactly how the photos bear on Sotatsu's case, but desolate and unpopulated as the images are, they fit the mood. More to the point, the grab-bag structure bolsters the feeling of authenticity Ball is trying to conjure up. Novelistic storytelling is fakery, Ball means to say; transcripts signify reality, though the "reality" in those transcripts may be rife with deceptions.

So, trust no one – except perhaps for the real-life, no-foolin' Ball, who has a firm command of the complications of his conceit, building a story that holds together even as he casts doubt on most of its elements. The Japanese setting of "Silence Once Begun" and its theme of differently remembered events call to mind "Rashomon," but Ball's interest is less in the emotional dynamics that cloud our memories than in the processes of deliberate deception. Sotatsu himself is a cypher, and Ball's interview-transcript narration puts limits on how fully he can characterize him, but Ball is deft at showing how Sotatsu's silence exposes the other characters' selfish concerns. Joo's (self-declared) motivation has a romantic cast. Sotatsu's brother is driven by his sense of his own authority in the family.

For a prison guard, supporting the integrity of the system is paramount: Disciplining a prisoner with a stick, he says, "isn't beating, it is communication."  

Toward the end of the novel, Kakuzo, who set Sotatsu's fate in motion, makes plain to Ball how well he understands this dynamic. "Everyone has a version, and most of them are wrong," he says. "In fact, I can tell you clearly: they are all wrong. I am in a position to help you understand what happened. You need to understand, Mr. Ball, the world is made up almost entirely of sentimental fools and brutes." The closing pages clarify Kakuzo's own intentions, and after many poker-faced pages the ending has the effect of a splash of cold water to the face – a revelation of the political uses of a well-structured lie, and the flimsy structures of trust upon which governments and media often operate.  

Which is to say that "Silence Once Begun" is a novelistic exploration of the exercise in Ball's class on lying. Flattering a pal may not be a moral outrage, but in the novel's context Ball recognizes that there's a serious problem with duplicity – it sent an innocent man to the gallows, after all. So don't take the austerity of his novel's structure at face value. Behind the clinical transcripts and the flat, legalistic affect of the narrator's interjections is a clear concern about the real harm that duplicity can cause. Ball is sentimental, but he's no fool, smartly attuned as he is to the language of the brutes.  

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