“I am trying to relate to you a tragedy,” Jesse Ball writes in Silence Once Begun. “I am attempting to do so in the manner least prejudicial to the people involved.”
Mr. Ball’s remarkable fourth novel is about a writer named Jesse Ball investigating a crime that took place in the mid 1970s outside Osaka, Japan. What the author calls the “Narito Disappearances” involved the mysterious vanishing, seemingly into thin air, of eight single, middle-aged men and women, who lived alone and had no clear connection to one another prior to going missing. These disappearances were so abrupt that food was often left out on the table in their apartments, though there was never any sign of a struggle. They seem to have simply stopped what they were doing and left. In every case, a single playing card was left at the door.
The book concerns “the matter of Oda Sotatsu,” a young thread merchant who was arrested and eventually hanged for the Narito Disappearances on the strength of a confession, which a man named Sato Kakuzo, and his girlfriend, Jito Joo, coerced him into signing one night at a bar. These details are laid out in the first pages. The question, then, is not who committed the crime, but rather why a presumably innocent man would willfully condemn himself and, in a clear nod to The Trial, whether there was ever a crime in the first place.
The book unravels in this way like a pulp mystery, but Mr. Ball maintains a curtain of arch-realism in naming his protagonist after himself and presenting the story as a series of interview transcripts conducted with peripheral figures involved in the story. The metafictional ruse of maintaining that the events of the novel really happened, complicated by the fact there is no such thing as the Narito Disappearances in reality, is further encouraged by a splattering of captionless photographs, suggesting the characters and places in the text, but in their lack of clear origin, resting on the page like featureless monoliths, not unlike the images that string together the similarly enigmatic quagmires of W.G. Sebald.
In the journalistic account of Sotatsu’s arrest, he is awoken the day after the confession is delivered—by Jito Joo—to the police by a “forceful knock” on the door of his apartment. “When he did not get to the door quickly enough, the door was broken down. When he did not get onto the ground quickly enough, he was thrown to the ground.” He is taken to prison, where he is isolated and starved. In prison, he falls silent. He refuses to talk when interrogated. When he is allowed visitors, he says nothing to them. His only documented words, told to two inspectors during an interview on Oct. 16, 1977, are: “Is it possible that I could see it? I would like to see the confession.” This request is denied.
The fictional Jesse Ball pieces together the story through transcripts of these interrogations and firsthand interviews with Sotatsu’s brother, sister, mother, father and eventually the two people behind his incarceration, Sato Kakuzo and Jito Joo. Sotatsu’s family, aside from his younger brother, disavows him. “I was now the first son,” the brother says. To his family, “[T]here was no Sotatsu and hadn’t ever been.” Time passes, and Sotatsu is hanged.
Silence Once Begun is not exactly unexpected from Mr. Ball, but it is a perfection of his style. He has been searching the limits of fiction since his first novel, 2007’s Samedi the Deafness, another mystery that follows a protagonist attempting to discover the truth after finding a man murdered in a park and hearing his dying words. Silence, too, is one of the author’s leitmotifs, especially the way it looks on a page—his disappointing last novel, The Curfew, contained nearly as much blank space as actual writing. He revises himself here, successfully grappling with what it means to write in a genre that is an ostensible representation of life, when a good deal of life—especially for a writer—is made of lies, deceptions and not doing much of anything at all but thinking, alone in a room, not unlike Sotatsu in his cell. Realism is not the endgame of Mr. Ball’s work, but rather working through realism as a problem to be dealt with. The interviews in Silence Once Begun are presented without comment, though with an occasional authorial aside along the lines of “further conjecture on the exact degree of his reliability is likely useless,” which manages to be subjective while casually dismissing the very idea of subjectivity.
Silence Once Begun is like a treatment of a very fine novel, and it is a strong argument that that is all a fine novel requires in order to exist. It is realism, distilled to its barest essentials. When reading a work of realist fiction, the reader always enters into an unofficial agreement with the author to buy into a contrived world that often appears like the real one, but ultimately has, at best, as much in common with reality as a painting of a river has with an actual river. Usually with a novel, disbelief is suspended only after the publisher’s info on the copyright page and the author’s dedication, but Silence Once Begun feels more like a self-contained object, a kind of machine generating its own mystery in perpetuity starting with the front cover, so that even the table of contents is part of the story. It’s difficult to say whether the epigraphic note at the beginning—”The following work of fiction is partially based on fact”—comes from Jesse Ball or the fictional “Jesse Ball,” as the statement itself seems to take certain liberties. It’s harder to say whether the differences between the author and his fictional counterpart are merely superficial, though Mr. Ball continuously hints that this is the case, that the question itself doesn’t matter even as he compulsively confronts his reader with it. The same goes for the Narito Disappearances. They bear some resemblance to the Otaku Murderer, who sent postcards to his victims’ families in Tokyo, though his brutality was too great to provide a tidy parallel. Likewise, the book has several clear precedents, most notably Underground, Haruki Murakami’s work of “literary journalism” about the Tokyo gas attack of 1995, compiled in a similar Q&A format, and the documentarian objectivity of Norman Mailer’s “true life novel,” The Executioner’s Song.
The question of where fact, however partial, begins and ends—the pointless search for the line between truth and lies—becomes a window into the book. The reader’s search for the meaning of the text becomes as obsessive as the fictional Jesse Ball’s quest for the truth behind the Narito Disappearances. We are entrenched as the world of the novel blurs everything outside of it, as if to say stranger things have happened in real life than could ever happen in a work of fiction. Life itself, Mr. Ball claims, is novelistic and not the other way around. “Actual life constantly deceives and reveals,” he writes, “and is consistent in doing so.”