Silence Once Begun: A Novel

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Silence Once Begun: A Novel

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Helen Oyeyemi
…absorbing, finely wrought…In this book Ball the poet and novelist joins forces with "Ball" the lovelorn journalist to relate a piercing tragedy in a language that combines subtlety and simplicity in such a way that it causes a reader to go carefully, not wanting to miss a word.
Publishers Weekly
09/02/2013
The enigmatic silence of a wrongfully accused suspect is at the core of the new novel from Ball (The Curfew). In 1977 Japan, Oda Sotatsu is a mild-mannered thread salesman who falls in with a couple of wild characters—the charismatic Sato Kakuzo and the beautiful Jito Joo. After losing a wager to Kakuzo, Oda signs a document claiming responsibility for a series of mysterious disappearances that have baffled authorities in the region. Later, while on trial and in prison, rather than profess his innocence or defend himself, Oda stops speaking. Years later, a journalist, also named Jesse Ball, becomes fascinated with the case and attempts to track down and interview Oda’s family and friends. Most of the novel is written as transcripts of these interviews, which layer together, Rashomon-like, to form an increasingly mysterious and conflicted portrait of Oda and his alleged crime. This methodical presentation makes for coolly suspenseful reading, but it’s soon clear there is more underlying Ball’s investigation than meets the eye. For example, when he tracks down Joo, the normally dispassionate interviewer is overcome with emotion and makes a lengthy and unexpected personal confession. Even so, the truth remains elusive until the final pages. The novel is intriguing and offers a riveting portrait of the Japanese criminal justice system (a guard’s description of the execution procedure is particularly chilling); but how readers react to it will largely depend on whether they feel some of the final twists deepen or cheapen the material. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Silence Once Begun 

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

"Absorbing, finely wrought. . . a piercing tragedy. . . that combines subtlety and simplicity in such a way that it causes a reader to go carefully, not wanting to miss a word. "
Helen Oyeyemi, The New York Times Book Review

"Jesse Ball's strange, brief, beguiling fourth novel, Silence Once Begun, flirts with the hermetic . . . Ball enjoys borrowing some of the conventions of crime writing but in order to use them rather than to be used by them . . . His language is chastely lyrical, with a discreet musicality . . . He is often appealingly funny, in an absurdist manner reminiscent of the English avant-gardist B. S. Johnson . . . One of the triumphs of Silence Once Begun is the way that Ball enriches his metafictional restlessness with [a] humane curiosity . . . The language seems aware of the charged space around it, as if one were praying aloud in a darkened, empty church. His characters speak at once lucidly and uncannily; words have become strangely heavy."
James Wood, The New Yorker

“Remarkable. . .  a clear nod to The Trial. . . not unlike the images that string together the similarly enigmatic quagmires of W. G. Sebald. . .  a perfection of [Ball's] style . . . realism distilled to its barest essentials.”
Michael H. Miller, The NY Observer

"A seductive "Rashomon"-like chorus of competing explanations for Sotatsu's actions, each cunningly building upon, or canceling out, the last. . . Beginning as a work of seeming reportage, Silence Once Begun transforms into a graceful and multifaceted fable on the nature of truth and identity."
Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal 

“Jesse Ball's Silence Once Begun resists the standard narrative tropes of contemporary novels. . . As in Kafka's The Trial, the justice of Silence Once Begun is both tragic and absurd. . . Ball has built in a few genuinely surprising twists that exist solely because of how the story is structured. That's an accomplishment; Silence Once Begun is a fascinating project in which almost everything is stripped away but the contradictory stories people tell.”
Carolyn Kellogg, The LA Times

"Daring . . . Silence Once Begun is a wondrous and provocatively strange reading experience that places the actual Jesse Ball among our most compelling and daring writers today."
Nathan Deuel, The LA Review of Books

"Silence incorporates a vast array of styles: Ball’s musings, interview transcripts, other characters’ accounts of the case and even a few Sebaldian photographs. Throughout, there are many questions about both what is said and what is left unsaid; motivation, memory and reliability all come under scrutiny. . . What had been a taut crime story stands revealed as something much more ominous."
—Time Out New York

"Ball, who is perhaps the closest contemporary American writer we have to Italo Calvino in ear and mind, excels at wrapping the reader around an empty center—a quiet so potent that it is like the Cagean notion that it is not silence that accentuates sound, but sounds that define the silence."
Christopher Bollen, Interview

"And so the beguiling and instantly classic Silence Once Begun exists to fill in a missing part of the world. A part which, on further inspection, was never there in the first place."
JW McCormack, The New Inquiry

"A great page-turner. . . as hypnotic as any metronome . . . Think Camus's The Stranger, but with bonus material, like interviews from some of Meursault's closest confidants. Or think Kafka—only a version where the agents of power will pull up a chair and tell you exactly what was at stake in the trial. . . [a] daring and beautiful little book."
Hannah Gold, The Chicago Reader

"The format of the novel . . . together with Ball’s voice, like that of an old storyteller sharing a fable from ages gone by, lulls the reader into a trusting trance—a desire to trust the narrator wholeheartedly, and to believe the content of the novel to be true. . . The novel becomes a meditation on the flaws of perception . . . Every time a truth is revealed, the novel doubles back, shifts. . . The only certainty provided is the reader’s desire to believe in a certainty. The only real truth is what we believe to be true, and, for many, what we love and how we feel are the clearest truths we have."
Quincy Rhoads, Rain Taxi

"Silence Once Begun expands the meditative, eerie ground [Ball]’s already established into territory at once more private and matter-of-fact. Opening with the tale of a man who, after losing a bet, turns himself into the authorities for a crime he did not actually commit, the book follows the investigation of a narrator who shares Jesse Ball’s name as he tries to unravel why the man did what he did and what became of those nearest around him as a result. Once you initiate the mystery, it is difficult to stop. Across its 233 pages the story weaves interviews, parables, travel narrative, photography, and meditation around an unrelenting set of unanswered questions that open one door after another. It’s an extremely refreshing presence in American writing, and one that provides more than it requires."
Blake Butler, Vice

"Jesse Ball's latest novel, Silence Once Begun, creates and maintains an atmosphere of mystery and melancholy like no other. . . The story hinges on what is not known, people who have disappeared, and connections that may or not exist. The information that is revealed, however -- childhood memories, bittersweet relationships, strange coincidences -- is often lyrical and heartfelt, and the tale is well worth telling despite overwhelming uncertainty."
Brooks Sterritt, Bookslut

"I can think of only a handful of mystery novels that have used intrigue and suspense as efficiently in the first hundred pages. . . What first appeared to be a mystery quickly turns into a meditation on love. . . Beautifully hypnotic passages . . . Ball poses the question: 'Can any of us can truly know ourselves, let alone the others around us?'"
Nathan Weatherford, Full Stop

“Ball’s spare, meditative, Rashomon-like novel, a work of exceptional control and exquisite nuance, consists of contradictory transcripts, poetic letters, a striking fable, and melancholy musings. Enigmatic black-and-white photographs add to the subtly cinematic mode. With echoes of Franz Kafka, Paul Auster, and Kobo Abe, Ball creates an elegantly chilling and provocatively metaphysical tale.” 
—Booklist

"A Kafkaesque premise rests at the center of Jesse Ball’s intriguing fourth novel, Silence Once Begun. . . Ball’s calculated use of silence is masterful, and the novel haunts us, like any unsolved crime."
—Bookpage

"I want to drive home how risky this novel is and how well Ball pulls it off. . . Silence pushes all his buttons and skills into new dark territory and the result is exceptional. For what many will consider a “page-turner” (and really, it does move lightning fast for all the jumps between narrators and storytelling devices) its structure is so delicate, so complicated, it’s awe-inspiring. . . Silence Once Begun proves to be his greatest magic trick yet."
—Fanzine

"A beautiful, unforeseen and yet somehow inevitable ending. . . the elegance of an ageless morality tale . . . satisfying . . . dreamlike . . . Although it’s only January, I confidently predict you won’t read another book quite like it all year"
— The Japan Times

"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."
Lisa McLendon, The Witchita Eagle

"Haunting and original, Ball succeeds in re-imagining what a novel can be."
—Cedar Rapids Gazette

“‘Jesse Ball’ investigates a series of disappearances, a wrongful conviction and a love story in modern-day Osaka, Japan. [He] makes readers’ heads spin yet again with a darker but more tempered version of his strange, almost whimsical multimedia creations . . . There’s no denying the fascination his aberrant storytelling inspires.”
—Kirkus Reviews
 
“An increasingly mysterious and conflicted portrait of Oda and his alleged crime. This methodical presentation makes for coolly suspenseful reading, but it’s soon clear there is more underlying Ball’s investigation than meets the eye . . . Intriguing and offers a riveting portrait of the Japanese criminal justice system.”
—Publishers Weekly
 
“Silence Once Begun kept me up two nights running. It felt more real than the news and most documentaries and memoirs. Once again, Ball has extended the reach of the novel—of the love story, even—into menacing, freaky new places.”
—James McManus, author of Positively Fifth Street

Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-21
"Jesse Ball" investigates a series of disappearances, a wrongful conviction and a love story in modern-day Osaka, Japan. "I am trying to relate to you a tragedy." So begins the fourth novel from Ball (The Curfew, 2011, etc.), who makes readers' heads spin yet again with a darker but more tempered version of his strange, almost whimsical multimedia creations. It's worth remembering that the author started as a poet, and he is as interested in visual mediums as he is in narrative ones. It's also worth remembering, even as the author says this work of fiction is partially based on fact, that Ball has been known to teach classes on the art of lying. This somewhat noirish thriller has more in common with Ball's uncommon thriller Samedi the Deafness (2007) than his more recent experimentations. It starts with a lost bet over a card game. A young man named Oda Sotatsu makes his living buying and selling thread in the village near Sakai. But young Sotatsu fell in with a bad character, Sato Kakuzo, and a girl named Jito Joo. In premise, it sounds simple. "He and Kakuzo made a wager," Ball writes. "The wager was that the loser, whoever he was, would sign a confession. Kakuzo had brought the confession. He set it out on the table. The loser would sign it, and Joo would bring it to the police station." For this mistake, Sotatsu is convicted of the "Narito Disappearances," the alleged murders of eight elderly people. Ball projects himself into the story as a journalist, which allows him to build his novel from a whirling collage of court transcripts, family interviews, photographs, and confessions both false and true. Through it all, Sotatsu keeps his silence, while Ball delves into the mystery of Jita Joo's role in this tragedy. Ball may or may not explain himself in the end, but there's no denying the fascination his aberrant storytelling inspires.
Library Journal
10/15/2013
Paris Review Plimpton Prize-winning novelist Ball's enigmatic book purports to be based in part on fact. Set in Japan during the 1970s, the story, narrated by journalist Jesse Ball, tells of Oda Sotatsu, who, disillusioned with life, signs a false confession based on a wager. He claims responsibility for the disappearance of more than a dozen elderly people. Oda is sent to jail but refuses to speak and is convicted and executed. The novel describes the events through a series of interviews with Oda's family; with Sato Kakuzo, the man who induced Oda to sign the confession; and with Oda's accomplice, a woman named Jito Joo. The effect of the confession on the local community is dramatic; Oda's family is shunned, his father beaten and refused medical treatment. It's not until the end of the novel that we come to understand the nature of the confession—and of the crime as well. VERDICT This multifaceted narration of a seemingly inexplicable miscarriage of justice cloaked as a political statement creates a kind of Brechtian drama; the detached perspective is chilling, though strangely intriguing. [See Prepub Alert, 7/8/13.]—Henry Bankhead, Los Gatos Lib., CA
The Barnes & Noble Review

Like many author bios, Jesse Ball's notes his productivity (novels, collections of stories, and verse), his awards (honors from The Paris Review and Best American Poetry), and his teaching credentials. Yet only a detail in that last category really touches on what makes his work so interesting: Among the classes he's taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago is one on lying. What does one teach in such a course? A few years back I asked him about it during an interview. One assignment, he explained, involved telling a friend or family member something about them that is a) flattering and b) false.

"If somebody is fond of their quirkiness or their kindness," Ball said, "you involve that and say, 'Remember the time when you?.' — and then you say this anecdote. The key is to get the person to verify it, and expand on the story. Which a surprising number of people do. You should try it."

No thanks. I'm sure it works, but I've seen enough evidence of gullibility in myself and others that I don't see much point in deliberately gathering more. Still, I admire Ball's willingness to expose our tendency toward — even admiration for — deceit, which has driven much of his knotty, Kafkaesque fiction. Ball is a fabulist whose work focuses on big lies, be they anti-government conspiracies (2007's Samedi the Deafness), police states (2011's The Curfew), or the scheme that drives Silence Once Begun, which takes his chosen theme to some provocative and rewarding extremes.

The novel is framed around the experience of a man named Oda Sotatsu, who in 1977 claimed responsibility for a series of disappearances in a Japanese town. Sotatsu is innocent, we are told (and the story that ensues supports it), but he is persuaded to sign a confession by a man named Sato Kakuzo and a woman named Jito Joo; the nature of this persuasion is kept mysterious. Once arrested, Sotatsu remained practically mute through his trial, conviction, and execution. Or did he actually have something to say? The first sections of the book are composed of transcripts of police interrogations from that time and recent interviews that the narrator (a writer named Jesse Ball) conducted with Sotatsu's family members, a journalist, and others in Sotatsu's orbit.

We're encouraged to distrust most of what we read. The interrogation transcripts are "possibly altered or shoddily made," and the family members routinely contradict each other. Ball himself is an unreliable narrator, introducing the book with an apology for moments where he has to summarize events relating to the disappearances in a "novelistic fashion" — a move he calls a "failing."

Reading Silence Once Begun is meant to feel like paging through a cache of documents in a reporter's filing cabinet. Here, interview transcripts. There, excerpts from news stories. Tucked in the middle, curiously, pages of snapshots in Japan: a roller coaster, a train station, an aerial view, a field. It's not clear exactly how the photos bear on Sotatsu's case, but desolate and unpopulated as the images are, they fit the mood. More to the point, the grab-bag structure bolsters the feeling of authenticity Ball is trying to conjure up. Novelistic storytelling is fakery, Ball means to say; transcripts signify reality, though the "reality" in those transcripts may be rife with deceptions.

So, trust no one — except perhaps for the real-life, no-foolin' Ball, who has a firm command of the complications of his conceit, building a story that holds together even as he casts doubt on most of its elements. Silence Once Begun's Japanese setting and theme of differently remembered events calls to mind Rashomon, but Ball's interest is less in the emotional dynamics that cloud our memories than in the processes of deliberate deception. Sotatsu himself is a cypher, and Ball's interview-transcript narration puts limits on how fully he can characterize him, but Ball is deft at showing how Sotatsu's silence exposes the other characters' selfish concerns. Joo's (self-declared) motivation has a romantic cast. Sotatsu's brother is driven by his sense of his own authority in the family. For a prison guard, supporting the integrity of the system is paramount: Disciplining a prisoner with a stick, he says, "isn't beating, it is communication."

Toward the end of the novel, Kakuzo, who set Sotatsu's fate in motion, makes plain to Ball how well he understands this dynamic. "Everyone has a version, and most of them are wrong," he says. "In fact, I can tell you clearly: they are all wrong. I am in a position to help you understand what happened. You need to understand, Mr. Ball, the world is made up almost entirely of sentimental fools and brutes." The closing pages clarify Kakuzo's own intentions, and after many poker-faced pages the ending has the effect of a splash of cold water to the face — a revelation of the political uses of a well-structured lie, and the flimsy structures of trust upon which governments and media often operate.

Which is to say that Silence Once Begun is a novelistic exploration of the exercise in Ball's class on lying. Flattering a pal may not be a moral outrage, but in the novel's context Ball recognizes that there's a serious problem with duplicity — it sent an innocent man to the gallows, after all. So don't take the austerity of his novel's structure at face value. Behind the clinical transcripts and the flat, legalistic affect of the narrator's interjections is a clear concern about the real harm that duplicity can cause. Ball is sentimental, but he's no fool, smartly attuned as he is to the language of the brutes.

Mark Athitakis is a writer, editor, critic, and blogger who's spent more than a dozen years in journalism. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Sun-Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Washington City Paper, and many other publications. He is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Mark Athitakis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307908483
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/2014
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 212,505
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Reading Group Guide

1. Why does the author tell the story from the point of view of a journalist? How does that enhance the rhythm of the story’s telling?

2. Why do you think the author chose to use his own name as the narrator? He states, at the beginning, “The following work of fiction is partially based on fact.” Which parts do you think could be fact?

3. If you reordered the sections of the book, do you think it would change your view of the novel? Why do you think the author chose to put the story of the wager first? And last? Would you read the book differently if (like most of the characters), you didn’t know anything about the wager to begin with?

4. What does it mean to “fall silent” within the context of Oda’s life? The narrator’s? What are more figurative ways people fall silent?

5. Why do you think Oda Sotatsu remained silent, despite his plight? Was it honor? A way to escape?

6. If you were bound by a promise do you think you could remain silent? Do you think you would, in spite of the people it hurt? Or, have you been blamed for something that you didn’t do, because you couldn’t speak of it?

7. Mr. Oda is very opinionated about Sotatsu. Discuss the reasons he may be so vehement about his eldest son.

8. In an early interview with Mrs. Oda, she shares a story about waterfalls that she told Sotatsu while he was imprisoned. Although Sotatsu was too young to remember this, his mother repeated the story every time she visited him. What significance do you think this story has for Mrs. Oda? How do you think it affected Sotatsu to hear it in his jail cell?

9. Later, Mrs. Oda says she did not trust Jiro when he said Sotatsu told him he didn’t do it, and doesn’t trust anything Jiro remembers from that period. Why does Mrs. Oda distrust both of her sons?

10. How are the stories Mrs. Oda relates about Sotatsu’s spoon and his meeting with the mayor different from her waterfall story? How can these antithetical ideas of Sotatsu be reconciled?

11. Sotatsu’s brother, Jiro, was one of his biggest supporters. Sotatsu didn’t speak to him after he signed the confession. Jiro never knew what happened. He kept going to the jail, regardless. How would you handle it if one of your family members was in a situation where they were in trouble and wouldn’t speak to you?

12. Describe your feelings about the interviews with Sotatsu’s sister. How does she fit into the family dynamic?

13. How does the Oda family relate to one another? How do you think Sotatsu’s demise changed this? Do you think the emotions and memories brought out by the interviews changed any of the characters’ perceptions of what happened?

14. What do you think would change for the Oda family if they knew about the wager?

15. Discuss the character of Jito Joo. Why did she let Sotatsu go through with signing the confession? Why doesn’t Joo tell anyone the truth about Sotatsu’s situation?

16. Why did Joo start visiting Sotatsu in prison? When do you think she fell in love with him? Was the way Joo lived her life her own way of sharing his silence?

17. Jito Joo and the narrator both have had people they love fall silent. “‘You know,’ [Joo] said, ‘Nothing is for any reason.’” What does this mean?

18. Discuss Sato Kakuzo. Does the idea that he brought the confession, a tape recorder, and his own deck of cards make you suspicious of him? Was he himself responsible for the Narito Disappearances? Does it matter? Does the idea that it might be a simple matter of chance make Oda’s situation seem better or worse?

19. Why do you think Sato picked Oda to sign the confession? Did he expect Oda to follow through on his promise?

20. Do you think Oda Sotatsu was aware of the full repercussions when he agreed to the wager? When do you think it became real for him?

21. In the end, do you feel you have a full picture of Sotatsu’s situation? Can we ever see anyone clearly without getting their personal view? Would you like to be told the full story or would that detract from your interest in learning the truth?

22. What does someone’s becoming silent mean to their family members and loved ones? How does one gain closure or move on from a situation like Sotatsu’s, or even one in which the silent person lives on, where there is always a hope they may speak?

23. If you were in Sotatsu’s place (having signed a confession without saying anything more about it), what do you think your family, friends, and neighbors would say about you? How would their interviews go? Where would their reflections lead them?

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