Many pages of Jesse Ball’s new novel, Silence Once Begun, are open and airy with blank space. But to dismiss the brief book as insubstantial would do this intriguing narrative a disservice. Rather, as in poetry, Ball writes as if the spaces and silences are just as important as the words, and uses compression and omission as powerful tools for firing up the reader’s synapses.
The events of the novel take place in a town near Sakai, Japan, after a string of mysterious disappearances rattles its residents. The “Narito Disappearances” have disturbing connections: in each case, a playing card is left on the door of the victims, who are all older people living alone. Broadly speaking, this novel is a mystery, yet at the very start this crime already seems to have a culprit: an unassuming thread salesman named Oda Sotatsu has signed a confession and is being held in jail. Since his arrest, Sotatsu refuses to speak, and his resolute silence is really where the story’s mystery lies.
The novel is miles away from a traditional crime story—it’s the aphoristic, pared-down and sometimes maddeningly inconclusive counterpart to a chatty, neatly plotted thriller. Ball’s nontraditional methods of storytelling are clear before the story begins: an introductory page informs the reader that, “The following work of fiction is partially based on fact.” A small picture of a woman standing in front of a wall floats on the page, suggesting a factual, documentary basis, but the photo is without credit or caption, and leads the reader nowhere. More visual aids will appear in the book, but like this photo, they serve to form vague, artistic juxtapositions rather than push along a narrative.
While the plot is certainly compelling, Ball uses meta-fictional conceits to cast suspicions on the whole story-telling business, as well as the task of isolating truth. The narrator, like the author, is named Jesse Ball, and becomes obsessed with this occurrence after his wife falls into a spell of silence and leaves him. He presents his investigation through interviews, letters, interrogation transcripts and trial coverage, briefly introducing these fragments and sometimes inserting himself into them. Even documents that would seem to be objective, like court transcripts, are made suspect and hopelessly biased through the light that the fictional Jesse Ball casts on them.
The central character, Oda Sotatsu, is only gleaned through the stories and testimony of his family and acquaintances. The layout of the text, sometimes resembling a screenplay, evokes cinematic comparison—and like the classic film Citizen Kane, the main character is a mystery around whom fragmented and unreliable subjectivities swirl. Yet the book ultimately moves from Sotatsu—an almost entirely empty vessel of a character—into the more interesting figures and forces that are compelling him to remain silent and resign to his death sentence.
Ball shifts from minimalistic, functional prose to more poetic and gnomic phrasings in different sections of the book, to disarmingly beautiful and strange effect. A character who becomes central in the mystery, Jito Joo, writes in a letter to Ball, “Of silence, I can only say what I heard, that all things are known by which they make or leave—and so speech isn’t itself, but its effect, and silence is the same…here where we are, here there is no end to speaking and the time comes when speaking is less than saying nothing. But still we struggle on.”
In the story, silence functions as a contrarian, political act, and Ball’s experimental yet quiet writing reaffirms this idea. Do not expect a satisfying, easy read from Ball. This novel challenges expectations of a traditional fiction and provides no sense of tidy truths and moral justice, but is refreshing and thought-provoking for these same reasons.