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A Novel

Written by Jesse BallAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jesse Ball


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: January 28, 2014
Pages: 224 | ISBN: 978-0-307-90849-0
Published by : Pantheon Knopf
Silence Once Begun Cover

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From the celebrated author of The Curfew (“A spare masterwork of dystopian fiction” —The New York Times Book Review), Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun is an astonishing novel of unjust conviction, lost love, and a journalist’s obsession.
Over the course of several months, eight people vanish from their homes in the same Japanese town, a single playing card found on each door. Known as the “Narito Disappearances,” the crime has authorities baffled—until a confession appears on the police’s doorstep, signed by Oda Sotatsu, a thread salesman. Sotatsu is arrested, jailed, and interrogated—but he refuses to speak. Even as his parents, brother, and sister come to visit him, even as his execution looms, and even as a young woman named Jito Joo enters his cell, he maintains his vow of silence. Our narrator, a journalist named Jesse Ball, is grappling with mysteries of his own when he becomes fascinated by the case. Why did Sotatsu confess? Why won’t he speak? Who is Jito Joo? As Ball interviews Sotatsu’s family, friends, and jailers, he uncovers a complex story of heartbreak, deceit, honor, and chance.
Wildly inventive and emotionally powerful, Silence Once Begun is a devastating portrayal of a justice system compromised, and evidence that Jesse Ball is a voraciously gifted novelist working at the height of his powers.


A First Telling of the Story

Oda Sotatsu was a young man in October of 1977. He was in the twenty-ninth year of his life. He worked in an office, an import/export business owned by his uncle. They principally sold thread. To do this, they bought thread also. Mostly for Sotatsu it was buying and selling thread. He did not like it very much, but went about it without complaint. He lived alone, had no girlfriend, no pets. He had a basic education and a small circle of acquaintances. He appears to have been well thought of. He liked jazz and had a record player. He wore simple, muted clothing, ate most meals at home. The more passionately he felt about a subject, the less likely he would be to join a discussion. Many people knew him, and lived beside him, near him—but few could say they had any sense of what he was really like. They had not suspected that he was really like anything. It seemed he merely was what he did: a quiet daily routine of work and sleep.
The story of Oda Sotatsu begins with a confession that he signed.
He had fallen in with a man named Kakuzo and a girl named Jito Joo. These were somewhat wild characters, particularly Sato Kakuzo. He was in trouble, or had been. People knew it.
Now this is what happened: somehow Kakuzo met Oda Sotatsu, and somehow he convinced him to sign a confession for a crime that he had not committed.
That he should sign a confession for a crime that he did not commit is strange. It is hard to believe. Yet, he did in fact sign it. When I learned of these events, and when I researched them, I found that there was a reason he did so, and that reason is—he was compelled to by a wager.
There were several accounts of how that evening went. One was the version that had been in the newspapers. Another was a version told by Oda Sotatsu’s family. Still a third was the version held to by Sato Kakuzo. This final version is stronger than the others for the reason that Kakuzo taped the proceedings and showed the tape to me. I have listened to it many times, and each time, I hear things that I have not heard before. One has the impression that one can know life, actual life, from its simulacrums by the fact that actual life constantly deceives and reveals, and is consistent in doing so.
I will describe for you the events of that evening.

The Wager

When I listened to the tape, the conversation was, in places, difficult to make out. The music was loud. As the night wore on, the party drank and spoke quite rapidly. In general, the atmosphere was that of a bar. Someone (Joo?) repeatedly gets up, leaves, returns, scraping her chair loudly against the wooden floor. They spoke inconsequentially for about forty minutes, and then they reached the matter of the wager.
Kakuzo led into it quietly. He spoke fluidly and described a sort of comradeship that they shared, the three of them. He acted as though they were all fed up with life. Joo and he, he said, had been doing things to try to escape this feeling. One of those things was to wager on cards, in a private game between the two of them. He said when he would lose, he would cut himself. Or Joo would cut herself, if she should lose. He said they went from that to other things, to forcing each other to do things, in order to feel alive again. But it all revolved around the wagering, around letting life hang in a balance. Did Sotatsu not think that was fascinating? Was he in no way stirred to try it?
All night, they were at him, Joo and Kakuzo, and finally, they convinced him. In fact, they had chosen him because he had appeared to them as someone who might be convinced, who could be convinced of such a thing. And indeed, it proved true; they were able to make him join their game.
He and Kakuzo made a wager. The wager was that the loser, whoever he was, would sign a confession. Kakuzo had brought the confession. He set it out on the table. The loser would sign it, and Joo would bring it to the police station. All that one could feel in life would be gathered up into this single moment when the wager went forward and one’s entire life hung on the flip of a card. Kakuzo had brought the cards as well, and they sat there on the table beside the confession.
The music in the bar was loud. Oda Sotatsu’s life was difficult and had not yielded to him the things he had hoped for. He liked and respected both Kakuzo and Joo and they were bent entirely on him, and on his doing of this thing. This is how it turned out: Oda Sotatsu wagered with Sato Kakuzo. He lost the wager. He took a pen and he signed the confession, there on the table. Joo took it with her and she and Kakuzo left the bar. Oda went home to his small apartment. Whether he slept or not, we do not know.

Jesse Ball

About Jesse Ball

Jesse Ball - Silence Once Begun

Photo © Joe Lieske

Jesse Ball is the author of four novels--Samedi the Deafness, The Way Through Doors, The Curfew, and Silence Once Begun--as well as several works of verse, bestiaries, and sketchbooks. His prizes include the 2008 Paris Review Plimpton Prize; his verse has been included in the Best American Poetry series. He gives classes on lucid dreaming and lying in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's MFA Writing program. His next novel, A Cure for Suicide, is to be published by Pantheon in 2015.



Praise for Silence Once Begun 

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

"Absorbing, finely wrought. . . a piercing tragedy. . . that combines subtlety and simplicity in such a way that it causes a reader to go carefully, not wanting to miss a word. "
Helen Oyeyemi, The New York Times Book Review

"Jesse Ball's strange, brief, beguiling fourth novel, Silence Once Begun, flirts with the hermetic . . . Ball enjoys borrowing some of the conventions of crime writing but in order to use them rather than to be used by them . . . His language is chastely lyrical, with a discreet musicality . . . He is often appealingly funny, in an absurdist manner reminiscent of the English avant-gardist B. S. Johnson . . . One of the triumphs of Silence Once Begun is the way that Ball enriches his metafictional restlessness with [a] humane curiosity . . . The language seems aware of the charged space around it, as if one were praying aloud in a darkened, empty church. His characters speak at once lucidly and uncannily; words have become strangely heavy."
James Wood, The New Yorker

“Remarkable. . .  a clear nod to The Trial. . . not unlike the images that string together the similarly enigmatic quagmires of W. G. Sebald. . .  a perfection of [Ball's] style . . . realism distilled to its barest essentials.”
Michael H. Miller, The NY Observer

"A seductive "Rashomon"-like chorus of competing explanations for Sotatsu's actions, each cunningly building upon, or canceling out, the last. . . Beginning as a work of seeming reportage, Silence Once Begun transforms into a graceful and multifaceted fable on the nature of truth and identity."
Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal 

“Jesse Ball's Silence Once Begun resists the standard narrative tropes of contemporary novels. . . As in Kafka's The Trial, the justice of Silence Once Begun is both tragic and absurd. . . Ball has built in a few genuinely surprising twists that exist solely because of how the story is structured. That's an accomplishment; Silence Once Begun is a fascinating project in which almost everything is stripped away but the contradictory stories people tell.”
Carolyn Kellogg, The LA Times

"Daring . . . Silence Once Begun is a wondrous and provocatively strange reading experience that places the actual Jesse Ball among our most compelling and daring writers today."
Nathan Deuel, The LA Review of Books

"Silence incorporates a vast array of styles: Ball’s musings, interview transcripts, other characters’ accounts of the case and even a few Sebaldian photographs. Throughout, there are many questions about both what is said and what is left unsaid; motivation, memory and reliability all come under scrutiny. . . What had been a taut crime story stands revealed as something much more ominous."
—Time Out New York

"Ball, who is perhaps the closest contemporary American writer we have to Italo Calvino in ear and mind, excels at wrapping the reader around an empty center—a quiet so potent that it is like the Cagean notion that it is not silence that accentuates sound, but sounds that define the silence."
Christopher Bollen, Interview

"And so the beguiling and instantly classic Silence Once Begun exists to fill in a missing part of the world. A part which, on further inspection, was never there in the first place."
JW McCormack, The New Inquiry

"A great page-turner. . . as hypnotic as any metronome . . . Think Camus's The Stranger, but with bonus material, like interviews from some of Meursault's closest confidants. Or think Kafka—only a version where the agents of power will pull up a chair and tell you exactly what was at stake in the trial. . . [a] daring and beautiful little book."
Hannah Gold, The Chicago Reader

"The format of the novel . . . together with Ball’s voice, like that of an old storyteller sharing a fable from ages gone by, lulls the reader into a trusting trance—a desire to trust the narrator wholeheartedly, and to believe the content of the novel to be true. . . The novel becomes a meditation on the flaws of perception . . . Every time a truth is revealed, the novel doubles back, shifts. . . The only certainty provided is the reader’s desire to believe in a certainty. The only real truth is what we believe to be true, and, for many, what we love and how we feel are the clearest truths we have."
Quincy Rhoads, Rain Taxi

"Silence Once Begun expands the meditative, eerie ground [Ball]’s already established into territory at once more private and matter-of-fact. Opening with the tale of a man who, after losing a bet, turns himself into the authorities for a crime he did not actually commit, the book follows the investigation of a narrator who shares Jesse Ball’s name as he tries to unravel why the man did what he did and what became of those nearest around him as a result. Once you initiate the mystery, it is difficult to stop. Across its 233 pages the story weaves interviews, parables, travel narrative, photography, and meditation around an unrelenting set of unanswered questions that open one door after another. It’s an extremely refreshing presence in American writing, and one that provides more than it requires."
Blake Butler, Vice

"Jesse Ball's latest novel, Silence Once Begun, creates and maintains an atmosphere of mystery and melancholy like no other. . . The story hinges on what is not known, people who have disappeared, and connections that may or not exist. The information that is revealed, however -- childhood memories, bittersweet relationships, strange coincidences -- is often lyrical and heartfelt, and the tale is well worth telling despite overwhelming uncertainty."
Brooks Sterritt, Bookslut

"I can think of only a handful of mystery novels that have used intrigue and suspense as efficiently in the first hundred pages. . . What first appeared to be a mystery quickly turns into a meditation on love. . . Beautifully hypnotic passages . . . Ball poses the question: 'Can any of us can truly know ourselves, let alone the others around us?'"
Nathan Weatherford, Full Stop

“Ball’s spare, meditative, Rashomon-like novel, a work of exceptional control and exquisite nuance, consists of contradictory transcripts, poetic letters, a striking fable, and melancholy musings. Enigmatic black-and-white photographs add to the subtly cinematic mode. With echoes of Franz Kafka, Paul Auster, and Kobo Abe, Ball creates an elegantly chilling and provocatively metaphysical tale.” 

"A Kafkaesque premise rests at the center of Jesse Ball’s intriguing fourth novel, Silence Once Begun. . . Ball’s calculated use of silence is masterful, and the novel haunts us, like any unsolved crime."

"I want to drive home how risky this novel is and how well Ball pulls it off. . . Silence pushes all his buttons and skills into new dark territory and the result is exceptional. For what many will consider a “page-turner” (and really, it does move lightning fast for all the jumps between narrators and storytelling devices) its structure is so delicate, so complicated, it’s awe-inspiring. . . Silence Once Begun proves to be his greatest magic trick yet."

"A beautiful, unforeseen and yet somehow inevitable ending. . . the elegance of an ageless morality tale . . . satisfying . . . dreamlike . . . Although it’s only January, I confidently predict you won’t read another book quite like it all year"
— The Japan Times

"Silence Once Begun doesn’t answer all the questions it sets out asking – it even raises some new ones farther in – but it’s a wonderful, chaotic, engrossing exploration of what drives people to do what they do and how lives intersect, maybe just once, maybe again years later, or maybe forever."
Lisa McLendon, The Witchita Eagle

"Haunting and original, Ball succeeds in re-imagining what a novel can be."
—Cedar Rapids Gazette

“‘Jesse Ball’ investigates a series of disappearances, a wrongful conviction and a love story in modern-day Osaka, Japan. [He] makes readers’ heads spin yet again with a darker but more tempered version of his strange, almost whimsical multimedia creations . . . There’s no denying the fascination his aberrant storytelling inspires.”
—Kirkus Reviews
“An increasingly mysterious and conflicted portrait of Oda and his alleged crime. This methodical presentation makes for coolly suspenseful reading, but it’s soon clear there is more underlying Ball’s investigation than meets the eye . . . Intriguing and offers a riveting portrait of the Japanese criminal justice system.”
—Publishers Weekly
“Silence Once Begun kept me up two nights running. It felt more real than the news and most documentaries and memoirs. Once again, Ball has extended the reach of the novel—of the love story, even—into menacing, freaky new places.”
—James McManus, author of Positively Fifth Street
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions for discussion contained in this guide are designed to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Silence Once Begun. The themes in this novel are varied and complex. If there are time constraints to your discussion, you may want to focus on one particular theme.

About the Guide

Jesse Ball solidifies his growing reputation as a significant and gifted novelist in his major hardcover fiction debut.

In the small Japanese town of Narito, an unremarkable thread salesman named Oda Sotatsu signs a confession regarding the recent disappearances of eight people. Oda is arrested, jailed, and convicted to a sentence of execution. But through his police interrogations and despite the pleas of his family, Oda refuses to speak about the crimes.

Journalist and narrator Jesse Ball becomes fascinated with the events surrounding Oda’s silence. Why wouldn’t he speak? What secrets was he hiding? Ball interviews Oda’s parents, sister, brother, prison guards, and eventually a mysterious young woman named Jito Joo—who visited Oda in his cell while he awaited execution—as he tries to find the truth behind this awful and heartbreaking silence.

About the Author

Jesse Ball is the author of three previous novels including Samedi the Deafness, and several works of verse, bestiaries, and sketchbooks. His prizes include the 2008 Paris Review Plimpton Prize; his verse has been included in the Best American Poetry series. He gives classes on lucid dreaming and lying in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Discussion Guides

1. Why does the author tell the story from the point of view of a journalist? How does that enhance the rhythm of the story’s telling?

2. Why do you think the author chose to use his own name as the narrator? He states, at the beginning, “The following work of fiction is partially based on fact.” Which parts do you think could be fact?

3. If you reordered the sections of the book, do you think it would change your view of the novel? Why do you think the author chose to put the story of the wager first? And last? Would you read the book differently if (like most of the characters), you didn’t know anything about the wager to begin with?

4. What does it mean to “fall silent” within the context of Oda’s life? The narrator’s? What are more figurative ways people fall silent?

5. Why do you think Oda Sotatsu remained silent, despite his plight? Was it honor? A way to escape?

6. If you were bound by a promise do you think you could remain silent? Do you think you would, in spite of the people it hurt? Or, have you been blamed for something that you didn’t do, because you couldn’t speak of it?

7. Mr. Oda is very opinionated about Sotatsu. Discuss the reasons he may be so vehement about his eldest son.

8. In an early interview with Mrs. Oda, she shares a story about waterfalls that she told Sotatsu while he was imprisoned. Although Sotatsu was too young to remember this, his mother repeated the story every time she visited him. What significance do you think this story has for Mrs. Oda? How do you think it affected Sotatsu to hear it in his jail cell?

9. Later, Mrs. Oda says she did not trust Jiro when he said Sotatsu told him he didn’t do it, and doesn’t trust anything Jiro remembers from that period. Why does Mrs. Oda distrust both of her sons?

10. How are the stories Mrs. Oda relates about Sotatsu’s spoon and his meeting with the mayor different from her waterfall story? How can these antithetical ideas of Sotatsu be reconciled?

11. Sotatsu’s brother, Jiro, was one of his biggest supporters. Sotatsu didn’t speak to him after he signed the confession. Jiro never knew what happened. He kept going to the jail, regardless. How would you handle it if one of your family members was in a situation where they were in trouble and wouldn’t speak to you?

12. Describe your feelings about the interviews with Sotatsu’s sister. How does she fit into the family dynamic?

13. How does the Oda family relate to one another? How do you think Sotatsu’s demise changed this? Do you think the emotions and memories brought out by the interviews changed any of the characters’ perceptions of what happened?

14. What do you think would change for the Oda family if they knew about the wager?

15. Discuss the character of Jito Joo. Why did she let Sotatsu go through with signing the confession? Why doesn’t Joo tell anyone the truth about Sotatsu’s situation?

16. Why did Joo start visiting Sotatsu in prison? When do you think she fell in love with him? Was the way Joo lived her life her own way of sharing his silence?

17. Jito Joo and the narrator both have had people they love fall silent. “‘You know,’ [Joo] said, ‘Nothing is for any reason.’” What does this mean?

18. Discuss Sato Kakuzo. Does the idea that he brought the confession, a tape recorder, and his own deck of cards make you suspicious of him? Was he himself responsible for the Narito Disappearances? Does it matter? Does the idea that it might be a simple matter of chance make Oda’s situation seem better or worse?

19. Why do you think Sato picked Oda to sign the confession? Did he expect Oda to follow through on his promise?

20. Do you think Oda Sotatsu was aware of the full repercussions when he agreed to the wager? When do you think it became real for him?

21. In the end, do you feel you have a full picture of Sotatsu’s situation? Can we ever see anyone clearly without getting their personal view? Would you like to be told the full story or would that detract from your interest in learning the truth?

22. What does someone’s becoming silent mean to their family members and loved ones? How does one gain closure or move on from a situation like Sotatsu’s, or even one in which the silent person lives on, where there is always a hope they may speak?

23. If you were in Sotatsu’s place (having signed a confession without saying anything more about it), what do you think your family, friends, and neighbors would say about you? How would their interviews go? Where would their reflections lead them?

Suggested Readings

Suggestions for Further Reading:
December, Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop
There But For The, Ali Smith
C, Tom McCarthy
Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
Also by Jesse Ball
The Curfew
Samedi the Deafness
The Way Through Doors
Recommended by the Author
The Master of Go, Yasunari Kawabata
Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke
A Journal of a Plague Year, Daniel Dafoe
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, anonymous
The Notebook, the Proof, the Third Lie: Three Novels, Ágota Kristof

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