What’s the biggest effect the internet has had on writing? It’s a question that gets asked a lot in literary circles. Answers have included an exponential increase in narcissism, the erosion of grammatical standards, and the overall decline of Western civilization. For my money, the most transformative effect has been much more specific, and seemingly banal. In a word: paragraphs.
Look at text in an old-fashioned book with paper and everything, and you’ll see that each paragraph is indented half-a-dozen or spaces, the exact number depending on the press. Between each paragraph, there is a single space. Sturdy, durable, like the rungs of a ladder. Now look at text on any one of your devices. No indentation, and a double space of white between each paragraph, making it look as if they’re floating. It’s one of those tiny changes that reorient the way readers relate to texts.
Jesse Ball is novelist who’s spent the past few years exploring this sense of textual buoyancy. His books look different on the page than most other novels, and they read differently as well. Ball draws frequently on folklore and fairy tales, and the unique layout adds to the sense that one is reading not a book, but a reproduction of ancient hieroglyphics or papyrus scrolls. Ball’s new novel, Silence Once Begun, has a more modern plot – it’s a police procedural, albeit a highly idiosyncratic one – but the trademark appearance of its pages gives the book the feel of a myth.
Silence Once Begun concerns a writer named Jesse Ball whose wife, the preface informs us, has grown mysteriously silent. Trying to understand her condition, he researches other instances of sudden, inexplicable silence, leading him to the case of Oda Sotatsu, a thread salesman in Japan. In the 1970s, Sotatsu signed a confession claiming that he was responsible for the “Narito Disappearances,” a bizarre instance in which almost a dozen different people suddenly went missing, without explanation or trace. However, when Oda was questioned by the police, he refused to say anything, neither confirming nor denying his guilt. The Jesse Ball of the novel interviews family, journalists and police officers in an attempt to understand Oda’s silence.
A narrator who shares the author’s name? Such a trick often portends antic postmodernism, as in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. But Silence Once Begun unfolds with, well, silence. The writing is clear and direct, and all the white space on the page gives the sense that everyone is speaking with great effort, in fits and starts. In interviews, Ball the author has said that the novel was partly inspired by an episode in his own life, when his wife and her future, and his future with her, looked uncertain. This does much to account for the novel’s hypnotic quality, the feeling of sharing another’s fever dream.
Considering Ball’s penchant for unconventionality, the reader might think that the novel would fail to fulfill the expectations of the procedural, leaving justice undone and the mystery unexplained. This would be incorrect. The Narito Disappearances do indeed get explained by the novel’s end, the mastermind identified and motivations elucidated. But the revelation still fails to fully account for the inexplicability of Oda’s silence. After a certain point, he comes to seem less like a suspect under investigation and more like a monk maintaining some strange vow that no human can comprehend. It puts one in mind of that great Japanese novelist of faith, Shusaku Endo, and not without reason. Ball dedicates the novel to Endo, as well as to another Japanese writer, Kobo Abe, and in the title one can hear an echo of Endo’s masterpiece, Silence. Indeed, Ball has said that he was trying to address Japan as it exists in the imaginations of its writers more than any social reality.
An existential mystery, one that even includes a photographic interlude, in just over two hundred pages. It’s the kind of transformative experience that only a novel can provide.
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