Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Speaking of That Class...

When does a lie become truth, or a fiction become fact? It’s something to consider while reading Jesse Ball’s first novel, Samedi the Deafness. After reading this book, some might argue that it’s a matter of authority – the way that Ball creates the world that his characters inhabit is so well-thought and imagined that it is hard for readers not to dive into it. The book itself is hard to categorize – a literary meta-mystery-thriller about a mnemonist trapped in a house of liars. A professed fan of Kafka, Ball said in an interview with Hobart of the deceased author “what he's doing is tremendous -- he takes into account the minutest details”. The same can be said of Ball, a poet with two books under his belt. As a poet turning to prose for the first time, the author makes every word count, with every sentence essential to building up the story and moving the plot forward. And despite comparisons to a variety of prominent artists such as Kafka and David Lynch, Ball has managed to create something that feels truly original while also feeling like an homage to his influences.

The story’s protagonist is James Sim, a mnemonist living a fairly ordinary life until a casual walk through the park puts him in grave danger. While on one of his usual strolls, he encounters Thomas McHale, a dying man with multiple stab wounds claiming to have been murdered by Samedi, an increasingly active conspiracy cult. Shortly after investigating both the cult and the murder of this mysterious stranger, Sim is kidnapped by several men that place him in an asylum for chronic liars, one of which the asylum’s director claims is the man he met in the park. What follows is an elaborate world in which Sim cannot tell truth from lie, where one person will contradict the next, all while Samedi and his cult continue to send the rest of the world into a state of panic. Sim is forced to race against time, left with only a few days to discover the truth behind the cult and its connection to his new residence before imminent disaster strikes. This is to say nothing of the small details that make Ball’s peculiar world come to life. The lying asylum is founded on an elaborate series of rules (one of which describes the many different complicated knocks that must precede entering a room) designed to eradicate the truth. If there’s no truth to contradict the lies, they say, then the lies will eventually become true in some sense. This leaves Sim in a very difficult position – his alliances are perpetually in jeopardy from not knowing who to trust – one that leaves him constantly second-guessing himself.

As the suspense builds toward the cult’s suspected doomsday, Sim still can’t seem to resolve anything, instead finding himself caught in a web that goes deeper and deeper the further he digs. While readers will find themselves alongside Sim in an effort to solve this mystery, they’ll also be forced to think about the nature of lying and whether the truth can ever be known in the fullest sense. Ball has done a commendable job of not only making an intriguing storyline, but also exploring in-depth psychological issues in a way that appears both effortless and well-balanced. The impact of lying is explored not only on the scale of global disaster, but also on a personal level – Sim has fallen in love with Grieve, the director’s daughter as well as the asylum’s most notorious liar. Will we believe anything in the name of love, or better yet, will we give in to a lie to save the world?

Unfortunately Ball can’t quite give us the answer. After managing to give a thoroughly satisfying explanation to just who is behind the cult, Ball gives readers an ambiguous, head-scratching conclusion, one that will leave readers wondering and obsessing, reminding them that we can only know so much in this world. Until the intentionally-confusing ending, Ball has created something timeless, a work of art that defies categorization, written without a single clue as to what year it could possibly take place in. Readers will quickly find themselves immersed in the world James Sim attempts to navigate through, and most will find it hard to tear themselves away from the book as soon as it’s opened. Whether they’ll feel complete satisfaction once the book is closed is a matter of debate, but they’ll find themselves questioning everything around them regardless, an appropriate reaction to a book that challenges the conventions of contemporary storytelling.

[Note: Since I wrote this, Ball won the Plimpton Prize...congratulations to him. I still hate the Paris Review, though.]

The Dodos - Red And Purple