Jesse Ball writes novels and stories in the vein of Kafka or Daniil Kharms—surreal, often hyperpolitical constructions from contemporary life. His 2011 novel, The Curfew, whirls around an absurd dystopia, an uncanny avatar of our own. It’s home, but not quite. The Way Through Doors (2009) and Samedi the Deafness (2007) are set in neighborhoods at once eerily similar to and foreign from our own. To read Ball, who won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize in 2008, is to step into a kind of liminal space. And his new novel, Silence Once Begun, contains his most beguiling sleight of hand yet.
Silence Once Begun begins in a Japanese fishing town where eight people have recently disappeared from their homes. At a bar, Oda Sotatsu, an unassuming, lonely young man, wagers on a card game and loses to the mesmeric Jito Joo—Sotatsu signs a document that says he’s responsible for the recent disappearances. Jito Joo takes this confession to the police, and soon rumormongering and hearsay consume the town. Throughout his trial and imprisonment, Sotatsu remains almost completely silent, refusing to testify on his own behalf in court and barely engaging with the relatives who appeal to him. At the center of the novel, framing its various narratives, is a divorced investigative journalist named Jesse Ball.
Our conversations found the real Jesse Ball by turns serious and coy. We discussed the political value of plain speech, his near ascetic desire for isolation, and the necessity of lying.
Silence Once Begun demonstrates the failure of this town’s justice system, a failure to do right by one of their own. Another of your novels, The Curfew, also engages with unjust and inescapable social systems. Do you see your work as political?
Saying almost anything as well as you can say it, or doing anything properly and with your whole being, is a political act. And so I think almost any text that strives to have its own focus, without bowing to contemporary modes of humor or a little commercialism or whatever else—I think that’s very political. As long as everyone decides to hold and contain their own state, things improve.
My books, some of them appear to verge on the political. This one certainly seems to be an indictment of a justice system. In the course of time, many things that appear certain within an epoch or an era seem ludicrous and silly to those in another time. However, plain clear speech, or questions stated within the power of the heart, don’t really become silly. They retain a certain power. In terms of attempts to write clearly, I think that’s the most political act.
When people would ask my father what his political beliefs were, or to write down whether he was a Democrat or a Republican, he’d always write down that he was, like, a Peter Kropotkin anarchist or something. There was also some obscure religious movement in England at one point that was called the Fifth Monarchists. I guess they believed the British king was the anti-Christ. My father would put that down as his religious affiliation. I think in some sense, that kind of contrarianism as always been in me.
So much of the book is about the politics of truth and truth telling. Sotatsu’s brother advises the reader to be wary of what their father says about Sotatsu—meanwhile, Sotatsu’s father says, “I am telling you things now that you can use.” What’s at stake in the competing narratives here?
I think a book is often an account, or a series of accounts, that create a world that is sort of half of the world. There are references to a world, and then the reader supplies the other fifty percent. So when you have multiple accounts that appear to be going in different directions, the reader is sort of vying with those and can create a very rich world, full of paradoxes or conflicting authorities and ideas. Ultimately, that’s a closer approximation of the truth of experience, what it’s like to live, than a single, supposedly objective account.
You’ve mentioned Kobo Abe as an influence. How does his very surreal vision of Japan come to bear on Silence Once Begun?
I don’t really think Silence Once Begun takes place in Japan so much as it takes place in this imaginary Japan, the one I’ve found in those novels—in Shusaku Endo’s books or Kobo Abe’s. It’s more like Kafka’s Amerika to America. It isn’t really America, so much as a fictional place.
The thing I like about Kobo Abe especially is how little he feels compelled to resolve things that don’t need to be resolved in his novels. There’s a great deal of, I don’t know, you could almost call it discomfort that comes in when you’re reading his novels, and I think it ends up being a bountiful kind of discomfort. Part of that is in being able to accept which things can in fact be determined. The larger consensus of culture wants to have this delirious speech that tells us that all these things can actually be known, can be determined, all these things are safe and the world is comfortable—when it isn’t at all. It’s like trying to patch an endless hole. You come up with some momentary truth that isn’t really a truth, which is what a lesser novelist would do. But not Kobo Abe. That’s one of the things I aspire to do, to not make any determinations where things should be left ambiguous.
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. The book is a lot of plain speech, and the simplest spoon to dole out all of this plain speech with was just my own name. It’s an attempt to reconcile my experience of these painful events with the world that I hope exists.
What is that world?
It’s hard to put it into words. It’s a place where a person can have a meager place, and not be sent away.
In what sense?
Not be continually exiled from their small chair.
Do you value extreme isolation, then?
I probably like being isolated more than many people do, but I’m lucky to have the friendship of many fine people, and they keep me from becoming very isolated. The world of my mind is certainly a populated and warm place, too. It’s difficult for me to become too isolated with such resources.
I’ve read that you teach a course on lying. How does one do that?
It’s just a reappraisal of the general moral position that it’s wrong to lie and it’s right to tell the truth. That’s reductive and silly, since everyone lies all the time. Malicious lying is usually a matter of need, but often the cruelest things we say are the truth. My class goes through different ways of lying, and at the end, it’s not like students come out of it as expert liars. What they get from the class is that they can write more precisely without having this very weak idea about the morality of truth and lies—to not parody some idea that is very popular.
If we’re lying all the time, what are the things you lie about the most?
Well, I write lists about what I hope to accomplish. I would say my biggest lie is the spirit with which I write these lists, as if I’m certainly going to accomplish these things when it’s almost one-hundred percent clear that I won’t. And there are things I’ll put down on the list that I end up never accomplishing. I think the lies I make the most are in regards to my hopes and intentions for myself. As for lies I tell other people—I will certainly tell lies. When somebody is very ill and looks awful, and you tell them they look nice. Or if you just ate the last cookie, if someone asked me if I ate the last cookie, I would definitely lie about that. But I think the most common lie is when someone calls on the phone and you’re asleep. You almost always will say that you were awake. That’s because there’s maybe a puritanical ideal that we should always be laboring and doing good work, and we should never be caught asleep. But I would never say that I was asleep, whether or not I was.