Silence Once Begun- Jesse Ball – Pantheon -23.95
In one basic sense, magic is the creation of a feat that can’t logically be explained. Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun – simple, spare, and narratively familiar, yet profound, poetic and singularly original – is magic. Quick story overview: a writer, dealing with a break-up he can’t understand, is drawn to investigate an unusual and mostly-forgotten crime that occurred 30 years ago in a remote town in Japan. The crime: eight completely unconnected people disappeared over a span of several months, completely baffling the authorities until an unassuming thread salesman, Oda Sotatsu, sends a written confession to the police. Sotatsu is promptly arrested and never says a word – about the crime, about the confession, about himself, about anything. For a very specific, personal reason, an aspect of the case compels the writer (or “the Interviewer” as he refers to himself) – named, like the author, Jesse Ball – to seek out the truth of Sotatsu’s confession. Jesse Ball (the author) tells the story largely through the transcripts of interviews conducted by Jesse Ball (the Interviewer) with the people seemingly closest to Sotatsu. Story-wise, that’s it. Ball (the Interviewer) informs us from the start that Sotatsu didn’t commit the crimes he confessed to, thus Silence Once Begun’s mystery is why he confessed. Through the Interviewer’s transcripts with those he can get to agree to speak with him – members of Sotatsu’s family and some non-family members connected with the case – we get conflicting reports of Sotatsu the man and competing theories of why he confessed. It’s difficult for me to accurately describe the cumulative effect these conflicting accounts have in building a clearer and ever-more-focused picture of Sotatsu and the events surrounding his confession, the trial and its aftermath. The interview subjects all have ego at stake and personal scores to settle with “the official history” of Sotatsu’s actions. Within these countervailing individual testimonies, the truth is revealed. And truth (or “truth”) is what Silence Once Begun is about. Or more specifically, how many different “truths” comprise a fact. The “truth” of our limited vantage. The “truth” that we believe. The “truth” we construct because we want it.* The “truth” we convince ourselves of because we need it. Ball (the author) shows how an utterly subjective truth can be in conflict with someone else’s subjective truth and both be “true”, yet neither factual**… …I’ll stop here and apologize: I’ve failed the material here, making it seem ponderous and pedantic where it’s incisive and poetic. It’s weighty stuff presented in a beautiful, deceptively straight-forward manner. When the “why” of Sotatsu’s confession is revealed, it’s horrifying in a deeply human way. While Ball (the author) lands a direct gut-punch with the reveal, the impact is completely earned – in fact, it feels almost inevitable. Critics possessing literary insight more finely honed and specialized than mine can analyze and parse what Jesse Ball has done here – the how he did it. It would be edifying, but not necessarily enriching for me. I’m content to remain delighted by the magic of Silence Once Begun.
*While reflecting on this book, I was incongruously reminded of the wisdom of George Costanza – that it’s not a lie if you believe it.
**After completing this book, I looked into Jesse Ball and found two insightful biographical nuggets: 1) he got his start writing poetry, and 2) he, for a time, taught classes on lying.