Synopses & Reviews
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 one Oda Sotatsu, a thread salesman.
Sotatsu is arrested, jailed, and interrogated, but he refuses to speak. Even as his family comes to visit, even as his execution looms, and even as a young woman named Jito Joo enters his cell, he maintains his vow of silence. And as a journalist’s obsession uncovers more to the story, Jesse Ball spins a wildly inventive and emotionally powerful take of unjust conviction and lost love.
"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’ 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
“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.” Booklist
“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
"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
About the Author
Jesse Ball is the author of three previous novels, including Samedi the Deafness, and several books of verse, bestiaries, and sketchbooks. His awards 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 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Reading Group Guide
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.
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?