As a child, I learned to conceal my love of fantasy. Reading it was apparently a geeky pastime, and other kids didn't seem to share my enthusiasm for talking animals and magical forests. These days, it's a very different story, with pop culture tropes like cute robots and unicorns, artists like Bjork, and a slew of mainstream movie adaptations following in the vastly successful footsteps of Lord of the Rings. Having cast off my mantle of fantasy shame, I can proudly acknowledge that my literary diet of fairy tales, young adult mysteries like The Westing Game, and fantasies like The Dark Is Rising prepared me well to appreciate the half-lit pleasures of Samedi the Deafness, the lyrical first full-length novel by author Jesse Ball.
A dreamlike literary thriller, Samedi the Deafness plunges readers into a dubious reality that seems to have been distilled from the burdens and escapist tendencies of our modern society. Elements of the fantastic and of the absurd pepper the narrative, which concerns one week in the life of James Sim, who stumbles across a mysterious conspiracy that may or may not threaten a doubting nation.
Samedi the Deafness gets going as James Sim is taking his Sunday walk and encounters a dying man in a park, who tells him the desperate details of a conspiracy unfolding on the lawn of the nearby White House. Sim has been trained as a mnemonist, able to remember in detail everything he sees, which comes in handy as he investigates the dying man's story. The novel follows a common plot outline from thrillers of decades past: A bewildered protagonist meets a mysterious and fetching young woman. The young woman turns out to be the daughter of the man who is the powerful, shadowy figure at the center of a mysterious conspiracy carried out by an intimate circle of male colleagues. The protagonist must deal with a steady stream of secret notes, numerous lies and half-truths, and the occasional death as he fumbles his way towards an ambiguous truth.
Sim's character is developed at a leisurely pace, introduced as a pondering sort of soul. Left a largely blank canvass, he emerges as a somewhat naïve figure who makes a few errors in judgment, forcing the reader to cringe slightly, but also to identify with him. A series of vignettes illuminates some hazy and emotional episodes from Sim's childhood. Upon re-reading the book, I realized just how much rumination on childhood is inserted into a generally fast-moving plot.
A series of suicides taking place on the lawn of the White House is the only reference that places Samedi the Deafness in the United States or in any other modern nation. Very soon, Sim arrives at a wealthy estate that is removed from the routines of normal, daily life, where the inhabitants abide by a set of elaborate rules governing conversation, dress, and even naming conventions.
But the series of dreamlike scenes that intersperse the main narrative remove us from modern society as Sim's childhood is presented in an otherworldly light. These scenes, in which Sim talks with his best friend, an invisible talking owl, are hardly a whimsical throwaway, as the author develops a melancholic theme on childhood and its relationship to truth and clarity to complement and interact with the main narrative.
Author Jesse Ball's lyric yet spare style brings a finely balanced melancholic emotion to the journey of James Sim, reminiscent of Murukami's finest works (at least in the English translations). A tension quietly builds as Sim enters the eerie country house and encounters a gently bizarre landscape of characters who share names but not their meals, quarters but not a social life. Even though very little explanation is given, even less might be desirable, leaving the reader to independently interpret the themes of lies and responsibility, childhood and honesty.
While many have remarked on Ball's genre subversion of the thriller, I was equally struck by how organically he integrates elements of children's fantasy into Samedi the Deafness. The nonsensical wordplay of Lewis Carroll and the dimly-lit foreboding of Susan Cooper are as strongly evoked as the bewildering complexity of Thomas Pynchon. Samedi the Deafness is almost pitch perfect in technique, and approaches greatness in substance. I expect Ball will only continue to develop his talents, fine-tuning his unique amalgamation of plot and style in the forthcoming World's Fair 7 June 1978.