I bought Jesse Ball’s first novel, Samedi the Deafness, in 1997 entirely because of the book jacket’s description, which compared it to Hitchcock, Kafka, and David Lynch. I found myself immediately engrossed, both by the novel’s strange electric pull—somewhere between existential murder noir and old-school surrealism—as well as Ball’s Calvino-like ability to make his story’s structure as compelling as the words themselves.
Since then, Ball has calmly and continually mapped out a landscape that feels far beyond his time. Whether writing about gun duels or human disappearances or stairwells that extend deep into the earth, there is always the feeling of something massive expanding underneath you as you read.
His latest novel, Silence Once Begun, expands the meditative, eerie ground he’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.
Jesse was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the novel and his writing process via email.
I know with your first books, particularly Samedi the Deafness, you wrote them in a very specific span of time. Where and when and over what time did you write Silence Once Begun?
I wrote it in Chicago in late August 2011. That was perhaps a week—maybe less. Then, the next year, in the spring, at the behest of the publisher, I added to it to increase the length and deepen some of the motifs, as it would have been short for a novel. That was a matter of a day or two, if I recall. I believe that the act of writing is easy, so long as the purpose of the text is understood. If the relationship between the text and the reader is fully known, then the act of creating the text is simple. There is no confusion. Often people write without awareness of that relationship, imprecisely, and the result is that the process of writing becomes difficult. Indeed, it is because they are not writing one book, but several intertwined. Perhaps such a person is not even maintaining a continuous persona. In that case, several people are writing several books. Of course, it is inevitable in such a situation that there would be confusion. Rather than that, I say, write one simple book by simply stating things quietly one after another, concealing nothing.
Can you tell me what the purpose of this book is, in that context? Or is that a question to be answered by the book itself?
Well, it is that. The relationship, as you say, is stated by the book, just as a poem is what it means, more so than any explanation. But your question is reasonable because one could imagine the point at which it is asked as a point that precedes the book's existence. Lacking total knowledge of what the book will be, the relationship, for me, prior to the book's writing, must be unknown. Therefore, something more might be said. In a way, the book is a solution to what can be known about these matters. A person could say, although I might not, that the book is an object written in pain, to others in pain, where every part is the least it can be. That would be a sort of ruler that might help in composition. Further sets of such questions perhaps join until they, together, compose the book in its form. It could be said to be the question itself—the joining of all such questions into one. Being human really isn't a matter of correct answers, but questions, questions, and further questions. Our answers might seem quaint to future generations, but our questions sometimes remain good.
I believe you told me at another time that this book is a sort of ode or rendition in the style of one of your major influences, the great Kobo Abe. I find the idea of that sort of direct influence fun to think about, both as a writer and as a reader. I wonder if you have anything more to say about what you take from him, or how you think about that kind of appropriation. Or, in another way, how the landscapes of the world in your book can build from those in his.
When I first read Kobo Abe, I was overcome by the depth of specificity of the task he was undertaking. He was not writing a novel. He was writing a document, a Kobo Abe document, and so he didn't need to bother with the extra nonsense of "novel." That makes his books unrelenting and wondrous. My favorite is Box Man. When I read that I felt, as I've felt also with Bernhard, that here was a thought perfectly addressed—the business of the ongoing speech is not misperceived by the writer. The task is known.
One thing I find that you share with Abe is a sense of mystery developed out of the presentation of facts and documents—that the world constructed through what is called fiction is actually a place locatable through the imagination. I felt the photos included in the book touched on that feeling, and, strangely, the feeling of seeing them was both sad and comforting at once. Do you think about more traditional feelings like place and time as active elements when you are putting together these documents?
I don't go out of my way to consider them, as my goal is usually something that begins in complete incoherence. It is almost as though I go out into a town, up and down the streets, looking for a house or a person or a tree, but I don't know what any of them might look like. However, when they do rise up, of course, they can prove to be the very heart of the matter. To better answer your question, I think temporal and physical consistency in the books is taken care of mostly by my innate obsessiveness with regard to detail. That, and the short time frame of the writing itself. It's easy to remember the appropriate state of things for a week or two!
What do you think is the use of the authorial concept of character?
I think there is only the speaker.
How does one know when they've erred from the purpose of the thing they meant to be creating?
I would say some portion of the intent should be continuously changeable, such that the condition of not having done what was intended is more a matter of having too strongly anticipated oneself, rather than a failing of the work. There should be room for the work to always rise to the new understanding of the world that it engenders in the writer who writes it. If the work fails in that, it was perhaps too stiffly administered from the beginning. The work is in a state of becoming, always, until it is concluded and set aside.