Monday, January 27, 2014

Review of Silence Once Begun

The image that came to mind when I started reading Silence Once Begun was of a performer setting up a massive plate-spinning act; hundreds of plates across a massive multi-tiered stage, with complex lighting, beautiful assistants, and a live orchestra. This is not a particularly unique experience in contemporary fiction that pays attention to all of the experiments and achievements of previous authors; after the structural, stylistic, and prosaic experiments and performances of modernism and post-modernism, a sense of daring and risk, a sense that at any moment it could all spectacularly collapse, bringing the stage, the pit, and the first three rows with it, should be assumed in literature. What was different about Silence, was I wasn't sure whether I wanted to see the plates spin or shatter. There is joy in watching the brilliantly complex unify itself into a brilliant simplicity (think Wallace, Danielewski, Egan) but there is also joy in watching the brilliantly complex totally fucking explode (think Pynchon, Blake Butler). Of course, one of the reasons I love Jesse Ball's work so much is how baffling and unexpected it can be. Though his previous two novels, The Way Through DoorsThe Curfew and , were more powerful in-the-moment-of-reading experiences there is something uniquely lingering about Silence Once Begun. By the end of the novel, Ball made the plates disappear.

The plot is relatively simple; after losing a bet, a young man signs a confession for a sensational crime he did not commit. He is tried, convicted, and executed. He remains silent for almost the entirety of his incarceration. Years later, a journalist named Jesse Ball, interviews the young man's family, “friends,” and a few of the public figures involved in the case, in part, to come to some understanding of the case and in part to better understand his disappearing relationship with his wife. From the plot Silence Once Begun could be about pretty much anything; justice, family, truth, identity, the power of language, the role of absence in all of the above, and yet is also seems to dismiss all of those themes and perhaps even the idea of themes all together. "Of silence, I can say only what I heard, that all things are known by that which they make or leave--and so speech isn't itself, but its effect, and silence is the same.” (186) So we are not really reading a book, so much as reading what the book makes or leaves within us.

The crime itself doesn't offer much thematic guidance to the reader; a series of mysterious disappearances of mostly elderly people in a single neighborhood with absolutely no evidence whatsoever of the kidnapper. No witnesses, no forensic evidence, no signs of forced entry. The only clue at each scene was a single card. The disappeared could represent anything you think has disappeared. And once the crime itself is described, it drops from the narrative. It is present, but somehow, you get the sense any crime could have been the crime; the point was elsewhere.

All of which makes this a very hard book to review. How do I communicate to you, in a way that is useful in your book decision making processing, the nature of this book, if I have very little sense of it myself? How do I access the quality of the book or give you to the tools to guess the quality of the book in relation to your taste, if I can't really tell you what it is about? For some readers, that's a ringing endorsement. For others, they might not be so sure. To make things stranger, this whispering, haunting, phantasm of a novel will be Ball's first hardcover release with perhaps the most marketing and publicity devoted to it by the publisher of any of his books. Someone thinks this is going to be his breakout book. I certainly hope it is.

And then there's the conclusion. Like the author's note at the end of The Handmaid's Tale, the conclusion to Silence reverberates back through the text, changing the value of the events we see. It isn't just that we get the actual villain's reasons for the crime and it isn't really that the mystery is explained. Instead there is, perhaps (and that “perhaps” might be what ensures Ball is read for decades to come), a powerful and pervasive statement about society in general. There's a chance that for all the focus on the emotions and personal relationships of the scenario; the book was actually always about justice. Or indifference. Or...something else. There is a chance that Ball not only made the plates disappear, but the stage as well.

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