Experimental novel reflects the nearness of others

03/23/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:22 AM

“Silence Once Begun” by Jesse Ball (Pantheon, 232 pages, $23.95)

When a novel gets called “experimental” or “wildly inventive” I’m never sure how to approach it. On the one hand, who doesn’t like a book that is full of surprises or explores a new way of storytelling? On the other hand, sometimes books that get labeled thusly seem like the author is saying “look what I can do” instead of creating an interesting story or characters.

I’m happy to report that “Silence Once Begun,” Jesse Ball’s first novel since 2011’s haunting “The Curfew,” falls into the former category. When I started it, I thought – with a sigh – that it was another one of these books where the main character just happens to share the name of the author, even though it’s fiction. But I needn’t have sighed, because Jesse Ball the author has put together an intriguing, complex, thought-provoking story, told by Jesse Ball the narrator.

The story focuses on one question: Why would a man confess to a crime he didn’t commit? The crime in question is the “Narito Disappearances,” a series of incidents in which elderly people have gone missing in 1970s Japan. A man named Oda Sotatsu confesses in writing to the crime, refuses to speak when interviewed by police, and is executed for this crime.

A discontented, displaced journalist – Ball – decides to investigate the case decades later, reading through all the official documents and speaking to Sotatsu’s family. Ball also tracks down two other people who were directly involved with Sotatsu’s confession – a woman named Jito Joo and a man named Kakuzo – seeking contemporary perspective on what happened: “In searching for a way out of my own troubles, I had found my way into the 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.”

Through transcripts, reports and letters from the time of Sotatsu’s imprisonment and trial, as well as present-day interviews, photos and the reporter’s own notes, we see the story unfold. But the story of what happened becomes at the same time more detailed and less complete, as Sotatsu’s friends and relatives give conflicting, often self-serving information. Ball – and we – are never quite sure whether they’re telling the whole truth, or whether what they’re saying is true at all.

Although it seems as if the structure of this novel would be disjointed, jumping from transcript to interview to the narrator’s thoughts, it flows well and is unusually compelling. It’s not all plot, either – even the police parts delve into psychology and character. And because it’s fiction, it’s far better written than actual documents usually are. Ball is exquisitely talented as a writer, choosing exactly the right words with a poet’s keen eye for nuance. At one point the narrator remarks on a mundane occurrence, but his observation works in a larger sense as well: “This is what we bear, I thought, the nearness of other lives.”

“Silence Once Begun” doesn’t answer all the questions it sets out asking – it even raises some new ones farther in – but it’s a wonderful, chaotic, engrossing exploration of what drives people to do what they do and how lives intersect, maybe just once, maybe again years later, or maybe forever.

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