Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball

Samedi the Deafness follows in the tradition of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Jorge Luis Borge’s story collection Labyrinths. For instance, the following from The Crying of Lot 49 could have been nearly as easily dropped into Ball’s book:

“In Golden Gate Park she came on a circle of children in their nightclothes, who told her they were dreaming the gathering. But that the dream was really no different from being awake, because in the mornings when they got up they felt tired, as if they’d been up most of the night. When their mothers thought they were out playing they were really curled in cupboards of neighbors’ houses, in platforms up in trees, in secretly-hollowed nests inside hedges, sleeping, making up for these hours. The night was empty of all terror for them, they had inside their circle an imaginary fire, and needed nothing but their own unpenetrated sense of community.” – The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pychon

This scene from The Crying of Lot 49 very nearly summarizes the major themes of Samedi the Deafness. Rather than relying on dreams, Ball more frequenting explores the distinctions between fantasy and reality using lies and waking fantasies, but the concepts are quite similar. Just as it is unclear who, if anyone, is actually dreaming in the Pynchon work, in Ball’s novel, it is difficult to determine which of his characters, if any, is living in the real world.

Ball’s novel is set primarily in a mental institution filled with compulsive liars. To paraphrase Pynchon then, a central question in Samedi the Deafness becomes whether these liars need anything besides “their own unpenetrated sense of community.”

Ball also has a whimsical scene with children, otherwise absent from the work, who appear unexpectedly:

On the grass, children were playing. Where could they have come from? thought James.

And then he realized that there were children everywhere. Children on the porch, children on the lawn, children behind him in the house. Never had he seen so many children in one place.

– Why so many children? James asked the man seated next to him.

As if out of a long sleep, the old man answered slowly.

– It is a field trip. Every year the children come. Oh, how we who live here long for and await this day. Can you see their little hats, their little shirts? Have you ever seen a shoe so small?

The old man snatched at one of the children running past, catching the back of the little fellow’s overalls and dragging him to him.

– No! said a nurse, suddenly appearing out the doorway.

She slapped the old man’s hand with a ruler. He let go of the child, who ran off happily to the lawn.

The nurse gave a long, considered look to the old man.

– Olsen, we don’t want to put you back in, do we?

He said nothing, but grumbled quietly and looked into his lap.

– I said, we don’t want to put you back in, do we? Do we, Olsen?

He said that he did not want to go back in. Not for any reason.

– Good, said the nurse. Good.

Whether Ball intended it, I immediately thought of the Pynchon scene when reading the above. Neither scene is integral to the plot of the respective book. Both are fancifully humorous while touching on something deeper, though that deeper something is not precisely the same in each.

SameditheDeafnessIn Ball’s scene, the old man is obviously quite childlike and Ball appears to be having some fun with age and youth. However, there is more. The old man is able to snatch the child up with little difficulty. Though the child is oblivious to the old man grabbing him, the grab is not entirely benign. The child’s play is interrupted, the child did not come to the old man by his own will, and the old man is treating the child as a curious object rather than an intelligent and independent agent. There are issues of power, its abuse, and responsibility. These issues are important to Samedi the Deafness, if not central.

Before delving further into the book, I want to disclose several things important to this review. To my chagrin, I have not read Jorge Luis Borges, but what I know of him and his stories, incuding “The Library of Babel” with its universe full of interconnecting rooms, leads me to believe that Ball owes a debt to him. My not having read Borges is, therefore, almost certainly a limitation to my ability to fully appreciate Ball’s work.

As importantly, I have read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and I was underwhelmed. There are great moments, such as the one I quote above, but overall I felt, as did Pynchon apparently, that the work was not a masterpiece. Many people disagree. I think these people, i.e. readers who love The Crying of Lot 49, will enjoy Samedi the Deafness much more than I did.

The protagonist of the novel is James Sim. James happens upon a dying man, Thomas McHale, in a public park. The dying man asks James not to go for help, but to stay and listen to him recount the names of his murderers. James complies. McHale tells James of a murky conspiracy involving various men and women. Samedi is the head of the conspiracy. McHale dies.

An hour later, James reads in the newspaper about a suicide in front of the White House. Authorities find a note on the dead man that warns of “the rod” in seven days. The note is signed “Samedi.” Rather than go to the police, James decides to investigate on his own.

Within three days, James is taken to what he believes is Samedi’s house. Upon arrival, James is invited to stay for a few days. The house is described to him as a “verisylum”; it was built to treat “dramatic cases of chronic lying.” The house contains a labyrinth of hallways and stairwells and the rooms are not numbered sequentially or in any other intelligible order. The occupants are subject to a set of arbitrary rules.

There would be no prohibition against lying, but the individuals present in the house, the chronic liars, would find in the arbitrary rules, which, as you’ll come to see, are many, a sort of structure that allowed them, as time passed, to construct an identity for themselves. The idea is that when many lies are told, unfettered by immediate comparison to fact, they end up comprising a kind of truth. On that truth too lies can be based.

James spends the remainder of the novel trying to determine the nature of this conspiracy and who is behind it. The important thing to note for this review is that very little beyond this can definitively be said about the plot. Things are described, but because so much of the plot is based on what characters say and the characters are all unreliable, the reader soon has difficulty separating the truth from the lies.

The quote is clever in that it could be a description of the novelistic process. Novels create worlds built of “lies” which have a truth about which lies can be told. (See Nabokov’s Pale Fire.) And yet, I question whether a novel, like this one, in which it is not entirely clear what “really” happens can succeed. Unreliable narrators are one thing. Nabokov’s Kinbote is awesome. But there must be sufficient clues for the reader to construct a plausible narrative or two. Ball may have been playing with Borges’ idea of infinite variations on a narrative and his idea that an infinite number of books could be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. However, while the concept is an interesting one, I am not sure creating a novel about which little definite can be said is a worthy goal.

If that was the goal, Ball succeeds. Perhaps a second close read would begin to reveal clues that narrowed down the narrative possibilities, but there came a point in the novel where I decided it was not entirely possible to determine whether anyone, including the non-character narrator, was telling the truth. That’s my way of saying, the narrative is likely indecipherable. Nabokovian ambiguity I like; incoherence, not so much.

There are inherent dangers in delving too deeply into questions of lies, liars, and the world they inhabit. Too many lies become a chore. As a reviewer of The Crying of Lot 49 has pointed out, “the fabrications take their toll on the readers’ credulity.”

Now, maybe this is genius. At the end, you cannot know who to care about or trust, if anyone, and you must simply choose someone to believe based on whim or arbitrary choices. You, then, are like the inhabitants of the verisylum in that you choose your own reality in order to make sense of the world in the book. Only by making arbitrary choices can you give the book a coherent plot. If that is the object, I think it is a little too close to being equivalent to presenting a blank canvas as the ultimate painting. It is clever, but probably too much so.

Aside from these problems, the prose style is not welcoming. It is very off-putting, but after reading for awhile, it does get into a rhythm. Still, parts of the book read as if it were an 80s text-based computer game:

— We can finish later, he said.

He gave James a disapproving look, and hurried off after Grieve.

Graham and James were left then together in the room.

This type of prose can go for a couple pages. Other times, the writing flows beautifully. So these are not stumbles, but intentional stylistic choices. And, to reiterate, the style does work with the story in a strange way, at least unless or until both the story and the style become grating.

This is definitely not a book for everyone. If you have not read The Crying of Lot 49 already, I would urge you to read that book first. Only then, if you like Pynchon, could I highly recommend this book.

As for the rest of us, this is an experimental work.

Experiments, said Carlyle, are not ever successful. Or they are always successful. Have it either way. An experiment simply procures information that was hitherto unclear.

Deferring to Carlyle, I will not say the experiment fails, though I was ultimately dissatisfied. I will say that I hope the book finds its readers, because I am sure it has them. I am sure it deserves them.

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One Response to Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball

  1. […] I can see the influence of this book has had. Of the books I have recently reviewed here, Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness and David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten both seem to explore themes raised here. Ball and DeLillo […]

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