Review: Silence Once Begun, Jesse Ball

Note: I received this review copy from the publisher. This in no way influenced my review.

A man named Oda Sotatsu signs a confession for a crime he did not commit: the disappearances of eight elderly men and women from a town in Japan. On the door of each disappeared person was found a single playing card, with no fingerprints. After signing his confession, Sotatsu says nothing either to defend or to further condemn himself. Jesse Ball, journalist, goes to Japan to try and discover the true story of Oda Sotatsu and the Narito Disappearances. Silence Once Begun is the record of this (fictional) investigation: interview transcripts, photographs, letters.

Okay, does this ever happen to you? You’ll be falling asleep, or you’ll already be asleep, and something will jerk you abruptly out of your sleep (garbage truck, noisy neighbors, whatever), and as you’re waking up you realize that you had discovered something of great significance, maybe the most brilliant thing you have ever thought of in your whole life. If this garbage truck would just stop disturbing your mental state, you’d be able to hang onto it and probably win a MacArthur Genius Grant and spend the next couple of years dining out on being a certified genius person.

When you are properly awake and thinking about it reasonably, you know that maybe your brain just created an illusory feeling of significance because it was trying to keep you asleep. Because you remember that one time you were able to track down the thought as it was slipping away, and the thought was that if people had twice the number of teeth, dentists could be much wealthier.

But on the other hand, “Kubla Khan”. So you really can’t be sure one way or the other.

The experience of reading Silence Once Begun is like that. Maybe it is actually saying something quite profound about deceptions and silences, or maybe it’s being quite self-important about saying, Sometimes when you tell people enormous lies, they believe you because they are lazy and self-absorbed. Dentist thing or “Kubla Khan”probably which?

Either way, I enjoyed it. All of the narrators were unreliable, and in most cases, their testimony is one or more removes away from the reader: The tapes have been tampered with, the transcripts of tapes have been edited, the interviewee couldn’t speak freely or wouldn’t speak on the record. Though the ending of the book does explain the Narito Disappearances fully (for those of you who don’t like ambiguous endings!), there remains uncertainty about which of the testimonies throughout the book are trustworthy, or which parts of each. It’s easy to feel that the narrators are telling you the most important things about the case when they aren’t talking about it at all.

When we were little boys there was an old gate at the end of a little road. We would go to it. Do you know what I mean? Do you remember boys go to things, to places where limits exist–to the end of things wherever they can be found, to the bottom of holes, to the sea, to walls, fences, gates, locked doors. Do you remember of all places, these are where boys feel their real work must be done?

(I think that’s all people, not just boys, by the way. Cf. “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep,” by Robert Frost.)

In a book that shines such a bright spotlight on the human capacity to see oneself in blank spaces, it’s hard to feel that it’s worthwhile to try to pull the edges of the narrative together. Ballthe author, not the character, although also the characterobviously has views about the laziness of that tendency. I’m not uninterested in those views, but the tenacious hunt for patterns (with, okay, an attendant sort of mental laziness once the patterns areor seem to have beenestablished) is one of my totally favorite things about brains. I don’t like seeing it short-shrifted.

Well, let’s end this ambivalent review on a high note, because actually, I liked Silence Once Begun quite a bit. I found it oddly (considering how arm’s-length-y it is) endearing: there is something about humans and their need to justify themselves and their lives that I find difficult to resist in fiction.

I’ll leave you with a bit of the book that made me smile very much. Here is the narrator telling you advice he read in a book about how to be good at finding things.

You are asked to find a spoon. You go into a room and begin on one side of the room. First you behold a sort of long shallow couch full of cushions with a table attached that extends along a wall. That is not a spoon, you say to yourself. Next you cross the wide, sloping, rounded space of the room, walking first down then up, and approach the far side, where, upon a long flat section, you see a sort of kitchen area. There is where spoons are to be found, you think. First you lift one thing, then you lift another. Not a spoon, not a spoon you say. But [the author of the book about finding things], had he been with you, would have looked at each thing in turn, and asked what it was. He would have looked at the couch, emptied it of its cushions, and realized that it had a fine spoonlike shape. This may be the spoon I have been looking for. He would have noticed the odd spoon-ness of the very room in which he stood, and might well have identified that as the spoon for which he was looking. He did not permit the previously drawn categories of objects that had been set before him in the world to stop up his eyes and halt his discoveries.

I wanted to write this quote down in my commonplace book, but I couldn’t find my commonplace book. So that gave me the perfect opportunity to put its principles into practice! I practiced looking at everything without saying Not a commonplace book, not a commonplace book. I don’t know if I found it because of this method, though. I looked in two rooms, and when I walked into a third room, I suddenly remembered where I’d last had the commonplace book, and I knew exactly where it was.

  • Ooh, you have sold me on this book right from your first paragraph. It will be frustrating of course, to feel that thought slipping away, but you describe it so well that the book sounds well worth it!

    • Gin Jenny

      Goody! I’ll be interested to see what you think. It’s a really unusual book. Can I recommend getting a hard copy to read, rather than an ebook? If you have the choice? The book just felt, I don’t know, pleasantly weighty. It was a pleasant physical object, I thought.

  • Well, I don’t know about the book, but this post is rather amazing. Nice one, Jenny!

    (And the book does sound intriguing, though I have a bit of a grudge against unreliable narrators, whether in fiction or real life…) 🙂

    • Gin Jenny

      Ha! Well, in real life, sure! I am a fan of unreliable narrators, in fiction only.

  • Oh, the slippery-ness of dreams! And elusive thoughts. This book sounds intriguing!

    • Gin Jenny

      Dreams are SO slippery! I am always trying to figure out whether this or that memory is a real memory or just something I dreamed.

  • This post is so correct for me right now. Of late, I am having a lot of vivid dreams and thoughts in my head-so vivid that I need to get up and reflect whether it’s real or not.

    I would love a few quite minutes to process what just happened once I’m up, but rarely have the luxury. I always feel I missed some important lesson the universe is trying to teach me.

    • Gin Jenny

      You probably didn’t. I frequently feel that I’ve had some significant realization in my sleep, but when I can remember it, it’s hardly ever actually significant. The trickier times are when I think something has happened that I need to respond to — like, someone sent me a cupcake! — and then I can’t figure out if it was real or a dream. :p

  • aartichapati

    I feel a little stupid now because I do not think I have EVER woken up from a dream and thought that I had discovered something so amazing and new and world-changing. Am I a lame dreamer? Do I LITERALLY not dream big? Sigh.

  • I love this post, Jenny! I don’t think I could handle a book full of multiple unreliable narrators, but one that teaches you how to find stuff is definitely handy.