The most common feature of life at Brown is all of the wonderful free time students have. Now, what to do with all of it? Ha, ha. Ha. Okay, we’re obviously all up to our necks in work, but if any of you are like me, you’re apt to spend some of your precious sober leisure time with a good book. Recommended Reading is a biweekly column in which I’ll tell you what I think is worth reading. If you don’t have the time to sit down and read Moby Dick (You should try to find time, though; it’s great.), don’t worry. The content will include poetry, comics, short stories, and perhaps the occasional essay. If you think I’m a hack and all of my opinions are shallow and boring, feel free to hate-read.
It’s rather unusual for a writer to focus on the meanings conveyed by a lack of language, but Jesse Ball’s novel Silence Once Begun focuses on exactly those vague conveyances of thought. In so doing, he crafts a tale that is both engaging and mysterious, following a crooked path through the tale that is fraught with doubt and ambiguity.
The novel is narrated by Jesse Ball, though how much the character overlaps with the author himself is never entirely clear. When his wife stops speaking to him, Ball journeys to Japan to research the decades-old case known as the Narito Disappearances. The crime in question involved the mysterious vanishings of elderly people who lived alone in the Narito area. The man who signed a confession to the crime, a reserved thread-store worker named Oda Sotatsu. Sotatsu signs the confession after losing a bet to two other people: a man named Sato Kakuzo, and a woman named Jito Joo. But even as he wastes away in prison, Sotatsu never speaks to the police, neither to proclaim his innocence, nor admit his guilt.
The novel follows Ball in a format similar to a documentary as he first meets and interviews Sotatsu’s family, then researches the proceedings and outcome of Sotatsu’s trial, and finally meets with Joo and Kakuzo. At the beginning of many of his interviews and transcriptions, Ball confides in the reader that the records have been damaged, or that his memory may not be reliable, or that some of the testimony of the interviewee may have been omitted, creating an unreliable picture in which what has not been said is likely more important than what the narrator actually presents.
The compulsion to keep up a good reputation, especially in Japanese society, figures prominently in the novel, and is the main source of tension between Sotatsu and his family. The reliability of someone’s image, and how it can influence the justice system just as much as the facts of a case, are central to the conclusion of the Narito Disappearances.
The novel ponders the point at which silence becomes an action in and of itself, and when it can be more meaningful and powerful than speech. Jesse Ball recently visited Brown to do a short reading, and he made note of how difficult it can be to define terms and enforce meaning in conversation. Sotatsu’s defiance of the norms of communication make him a fascinating character, even though the reader’s knowledge of him remains limited.
Silence Once Begun is an odd novel, but don’t let that dissuade you from picking it up. The story moves quickly, and the voices of the characters are incredibly distinct. You’ll have trouble putting it down.