I recently re-watched the famed Coen brother’s film, Fargo, with my wife, having last seen it in my teens and remembering virtually nothing about it. The film’s notorious for its opening text: “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” Of course, I’d forgotten, or probably never knew in the first place, that the claim was false, and afterward my wife and I, baffled by the carnage, were compelled to double-check its accuracy. What surprises me now, thinking back on it, is that in the length of the film, tangled in all its absurdity, that false disclaimer, displayed ever so briefly, carried through to the end, substantially altering our viewing.
Jesse Ball’s fourth novel, Silence Once Begun, has a similar disclaimer, if more humble: “The following work of fiction is partially based on fact.” Set below the text is a small black-and-white image, a photograph featuring a casually dressed woman standing before a concrete wall. As with Fargo, however, this isn’t really a disclaimer, it’s the novel’s first sentence.
Of course, being “based on partial fact” is a much softer claim than “this is a true story.” Even softer than the more common, “based on a true story,” which, itself, is well-known shorthand for not even almost true. This fact, however, is a part of the cunning in Ball’s frame. There is something knowing in the weakness of his phrasing, something honest-yet-forgettable, like he’s admitting, Okay, yeah, this isn’t really true, I admit that—I mean, it’s not even ‘based’ on a full truth. It’s a disarming kind of seeming-honesty, and, in its simplicity, a subtle groundwork for building trust, allowing Ball’s narrator to expand on his initial disclaimer. Our narrator—also Jesse Ball—gives, in his preface, an account of an idyllic life with his wife and daughter, a life inexplicably ended by his wife’s sudden silence and departure. Devastated and confused by the occurrence, Ball searches out similar circumstances of silence as a means of better understanding his own situation, which leads us to the story of Oda Sotatsu and Silence Once Begun. Before proceeding, however, he writes, “The names of the individuals involved have been changed to protect their identities and the identities of their loved ones and descendants. Dates, as well as particular periods of time, have also been altered as a further protection.” Bearing this out, he even goes so far as to lament having to retell the story “in an at times novelistic fashion.” It marks a shift. The disclaimer’s taken a journalistic turn, wherein the fiction becomes a necessity for protecting the subjects of the narrative, rather than the whims of the author. The underlying assumption being, “this is a true story,” which is, again, quite different from being “based on a partial truth.”
The turn makes sense, though, as the narrative’s composed of Ball’s investigation of a singular incident involving Oda Sotatsu. The circumstances of the story are fairly simple, at least seemingly. Briefly—and Ball is no less efficient in laying out the context grounding the novel—a thread salesman, Sotatsu, after losing a wager, signs a detailed confession to a crime he did not commit and is subsequently arrested. The crime, a series of kidnappings, is known among the community as the “Narito Disappearances,” generating widespread panic and subsequently outrage at Sotatsu’s confession. Upon interrogation, however, Sotatsu remains silent. His sister relates, “It was as though he had become preliterate. The expressiveness of his manner was magnified. His actions no longer leaned on his words.”
The novel takes up the form of a series of interviews Ball performs with Sotatsu’s family—his parents, brother, and sister—in addition to a local reporter who covered the trial, prison guards who claim to have known Sotatsu, and the party responsible for the wager—Sato Kakuzo and his girlfriend, Jito Joo. This in addition to fragments of articles written during the trial, transcribed tapes, letters, documents, and photographs procured from his investigation. The position of the narrator actually has a lot in common with the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s famous novella, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The chief difference being Ball’s (the narrator) repeated self-acknowledgement and professed objectivity in the telling: “I am trying to relate to you a tragedy. I am attempting to do so in the manner least prejudicial to the people involved, those people who were survivors of the tragedy, but also the agents of it.”
For Ball’s narrator, transparency is key. Even formally, the narrator wants to lay everything out for us, which is one reason the table of contents is embedded ten pages into the text: It’s important that we know our narrator has arranged the novel. He wants us to know it upfront, an authorial admission of transparency, so that even in the midst of a narrative as tightly plotted as Silence Once Begun, we can believe, or guess at, the reality of the events being relayed, having known beforehand the arc, having trusted the transparency of our narrator, having swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, the shifting contents of his disclaimer. And Ball is meticulous. Absolutely meticulous, in his arrangement, in the way he coerces us into feeling—his use of empty space, of narrative braiding, of grainy black-and-white photographs (remember the image set below the initial disclaimer). I won’t belabor the point more than I already have (or much more), but even the details of how he breaks down the table of contents, omitting the page numbers (and what else) manipulates our reading.
In the three novels proceeding Silence Once Begun, in addition to his collected short prose and poetry, a central component of Jesse Ball’s work has been its engagement with fabulist conceits, with narratives that bend in on themselves, spiraling into, at times, folkloric absurdity. Reviewers and blurbists mention Borges, Calvino, and Kafka—always Kafka (and here, echoes of The Trial). And while Ball’s most recent novel maintains a feel for his previous work, the poetic economy of his prose sketching the extremities of the human experience, there’s a concerted shift towards real-world possibility in the frame of the novel. Here, Jesse Ball the author is collapsing into Jesse Ball the journalist protagonist. And Ball teases this out to inscrutable lengths. Unlike the Coen brothers, there isn’t a specific time or place to investigate, and so we are left with the feeling of something real floating in our heads. We are disarmed, persuaded to move from literary criticism into philosophical inquiry. Silence Once Begun is, like its multitude of characters, about many things: relationships, obsession, politics, silence, truth.
Reflecting on the novel, I can’t help but consider the craft by which Ball generates feeling and how he pushes us into a territory of which only great art is capable. In doing so, it’s impossible not to interrogate the formal craft of the novel: the subtle components that generate such a powerful emotional response. When reading, one can’t help but suspect about its origins—that partial truth. In an interview with the Paris Review about the Silence Once Begun, Ball said, “At the time I wrote it, I was going through a difficult point in my life and it was just the easiest thing to have that character be Jesse Ball and not choose a different name.” It’s then I remembered hearing the author talk once about teaching classes on lying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and how the key to lying was telling a partial truth. And so, while I describe Ball’s art as manipulative and coercive, as meticulously presented, it still feels no less raw for its truth of feeling. It still feels no less authentically Jesse Ball’s. It is by this strength, in fact—its fiction—that Ball has generated that elusive effect: a dilated sense of the world and a renewed vigor to investigate it.
Silence Once Begun, by Jesse Ball. New York, New York: Pantheon. 256 pages. $17.97, hardcover.
Nick Francis Potter is a multimedia artist and writer from Salt Lake City, Utah. His website is nickfrancispotter.tumblr.com.