silenceoncebegunThe Poet. The Novelist. You know the type. The capitalization shows even when they refuse to capitalize their own names. There’s one in nearly every writing workshop. They’re a hazard of the form. If things have really gone south, the workshop is led by one who fosters the development of more just like them. Identified by their confusion of obscurity for depth, profundity for pretension, and artifice for actual art, they say things in their author’s bios like “He gives classes on lucid dreaming and lying,” which, if literal, should serve as a “don’t eat the red berries” level of warning for anyone paying their kid’s tuition at that institution, or, if figurative, is so black-clad-and-Moleskine twee that it should inform prospective students that they’re going to need to budget way more of their cash-on-hand for their stimulants of choice.

Sometimes, when there’s a core of talent underneath the layers of learned bullshit, you can almost forgive the Poet, the Novelist for the not unpleasant but ultimately unsatisfying time spent with their work. Some Authors, like Ian McEwan (seriously, read First Love, Last Rites sometime and compare it to his current work) can evolve past the posturing and deliver something worth reading. Others, like Lydia Davis, commit to confounding, rarified Art with honesty and intellectual rigor.

I’m not saying that Jesse Ball is any such a Creature–even though the lucid dreaming bit above is from the back of his galley proof–but he’s certainly playing the part well. I only have this one book–his others are well-reviewed in the kinds of publications that attribute more value to high art than I find tasteful–and the marketing materials accompanying it. The Critics (some of them have assumed the capitalization as well) will tell you that author intentionality is shaky ground, and no one should judge a book by its cover blurbs, but here in the colonies we’re just trying to stay entertained while the world burns up and we know that when you pay a publicist to allow you to say things like the following in public in an attempt to sell your book, you are definitely cultivating an image.

Q: … Can any of the characters interviewed by the narrator be considered trustworthy or reliable? Can the Narrator?

A: It is a matter of identity and person, on the reader’s part–whom they feel closest to, which one to trust. Also, one might feel a particular account is right instinctively, yet intellectually believe the truth likes with another. This internecine war of internal drives, motivation, personalities–it is a part of the reading experience.

I will say no more.

Q: The narrator shares the same name as you. How much of him is Jesse Ball? Why did you use your name as the narrator’s?

A: The names are similar. I noticed that also while reading the manuscript and wondered at it!

Q: The title of the book is very interesting. Is there a special meaning behind it? What is it about silence that gives it such power? Does silence, at times, transcend other forms of communication?

A: In life we sometimes long to hear but one person speak. Others speak to us. Everyone may speak to us, every one but the one from whom we want to hear.

And then there is nothing for it–life must be led in the shadow of that silence.

Some people are, like me, cemetrists. They love to wander in cemeteries. They prefer the absence made by human life to the hum of it. There are in the world many qualities of silence–even beyond the accidental or determined sounds, the natural sounds that populate any silence. Beyond those there are the silences of possibility, of what might have been, and of what was.

So while I’m picking on the ephemera around the book, let’s talk about the cover. With its minimalist generic-brand design and anonymous chiaroscuro face, I was reminded of Extraterrestrial Sex Fetish by “Supervert”–another capital-A Artist who works in the shock-as-high-art genre, a sort of Mike Diana meets Adbusters by way of de Sade. There’s a definite aesthetic here–the narrative as product–that rarely bodes well for anyone wanting more from narrative than its own self-critique. Silence Once Begun’s cover contributes to the obscurity-as-depth of this aesthetic: Where the face’s mouth should be, the words “A Novel” appear, scribbled out in chaotic red crayon. The first page declares that the “following work of fiction is partially based on fact” (aren’t they all?) and a “Prefatory Material” section immediately following is signed by Jesse Ball the narrator and explicitly points out the framing, the structure and the journalistic mechanics used in the rest of the book. We’re in deep David Shields territory immediately.

A prefatory detour, regarding Silence Once Begun’s Japanese setting: I’m not a huge follower of either anime or manga, as both forms are often subject to the stripe of arrested adolescent obsession and snobbishness usually found in young(ish) male-oriented product genres (comics, beer, indie rock, most of the web), though at least it has apparently become more of an equal-opportunity otaku(remember when that was a thing?) training ground for all sexes. I have, though, read a few of the works that became slightly more mainstream–Akira, Lone Wolf and Cub, 20th Century Boys,Pluto–and I watched a few series that showed up on Adult Swim a few years back, so a pretty shallow dive all around. What all of the anime, and at least some of the manga, had in common were stylistic quirks (other than the intentional ones) that I assume are the consequences of 1) shoddy translation errors*, 2) the necessities of low animation budgets (a couple characters standing around talking at length has to be cheaper to produce than an extended action sequence), and 3) some level of cultural impedance mismatch between American and Japanese storytelling traditions and common signifiers. These quirks manifest as a struggle with clear language and a tendency for characters to make long speeches, to provide repetitive macro- and micro-exposition, and to tell each other stories that almost connect concretely with the larger narrative but fail to work effectively as metaphor. I’m thinking in particular of some of the soliloquizing and philosophizing that goes on in the Ghost in the Shell series in lieu of actual investigation.

Woven into what is apparently Ball’s signature remix of Kafka-level bureaucratic oppression, Russel Edson-esque prose poetry, and surrealist experimentation, I found much that had to at least be informed by popular contemporary Japanese storytelling, if it was not explicitly referencing the form. Reading Silence Once Begun reminded me of nothing more than it did the anime series Paranoia Agent, with its shrugging, ineffective policemen, bickering families and nihilistic crime. Central to the book is a plot perpetrated as a form of political Art by Sato Kakuzo, a sort of Keyser Soze shot-caller who steps in at the end to explain (unsatisfactorily) the mysteries Ball-the-narrator’s “journalism” has led us through. Kakuzo’s art involves the disappearance and long-term reappearance of a pseudo-random selection of citizens (like Oldboy repeated, perhaps without all the torture) and the framing of an innocent man (Oda Sotatsu, the silent one), meant to bring down the legal system in a paroxysm of self-contradiction. Kakuzo’s justification, if it could be called that, of the crimes involves rambling fables and tangled logic reminiscent of the “Stand Alone Complex” climax from Ghost in the Machine. There are schoolboy flashbacks, butterfly-filled cabins, dreamy descriptions of bedrooms and execution chambers alike. The entire book feels like a series with stylized episodes all referring to each other in a slowly-revealed web of connections and consequences. If you’ve seen enough, or even a few, Japanese comics or cartoons, you can match up scenes in this novel with art styles and tropes. While there are some universal storytelling concepts at play here, and while I am bringing my own prejudices to this novel due to its coincidences of plot, setting and character, I would be surprised to learn that works like Paranoia Agent (though not likely that series itself) were not an influence on Ball’s writing.

The episodic and stylistic assumptions aren’t the fundamental flaw I find in the book, however. The story is fragmented, Rashomon-like, with competing perspectives from Sotatsu’s family, from reluctant femme fatale Jito Joo, from the journalist who covered Sotatsu’s trial, from recordings of police interrogations and prison guard transcripts, all filtered through the journalistic pursuits of Ball the narrator. He attempts to be little more than a recording device throughout, though he is an imperfect one, editing in visual cues where there are only audio recordings (noting a woman nodding during an audio transcript, for example), redacting large sections of testimony, commenting on the surroundings where interviews take place, explicitly calling out the presence of his recording equipment. Ball-the-narrator’s role in the story is hard to reconcile. The trick of conflating the narrator and the author by name has been done before, and rarely to any effect beyond pointing out the artifice of storytelling. Here, it provides nothing but a mystery obscuring nothing of depth. The framing device–in which Ball seeks clues to the silence of his wife–is dropped, with the entire Oda Sotatsu investigation seemingly becoming a way for him, or for Ball the author–to avoid the frame entirely. In the most traditionally postmodern stroke in the book, we are handed a set of unremarkable and unattributed photographs. We might assume these were taken by Ball the narrator, as he mentions taking photographs and showing them, though we have few clues as to which of them he was told were the better ones. Ball the author gives us a lot of beautiful little pieces, all loosely joined, leaving Ball the narrator without his own story to tell.

Ultimately, Silence Once Begun has all the trappings of an experiment in intermediated, post-narrative storytelling, but lacks the core that either satisfies with a complete story told despite the absence of traditional structures, or the frustration of a mystery left open by the meta-realism of a fragmented narrative. We are left with a story that is a bad liar, posing as some kind of factual when it is quite plainly an authorial construct, concerning a fabulist crime that makes light of the actual conditions and consequences of capital punishment. In telling us this rather odd fairy tale, I can’t help but feel that Ball is spending more energy on showing his presence as the Author, the Artist than on the important presence: the Story.

I will say no more.

* Sorry, otaku, I am old and the language acquisition structures in my brain have atrophied and I have a hard enough time with English and Spanish these days, so I won’t be learning Japanese and must watch things dubbed.