Thoughts on “Samedi the Deafness”
A potentially great plot; one wishes it was Jesse Ball’s third or fourth novel, rather than his first. Betrayed by the clunkiness of his protagonist, who after a few chapters as half nebbish, half cipher — a person empty of desire, initiative and introspection — becomes capable, as if a page were turned, of eloquence, volition and insight.
It’s possible Ball intended this. The transition coincides with the protagonist’s sudden abduction and incarceration in a verisylum — an asylum for compulsive liars who are allowed to indulge their falsehood but must obey a set of arcane and arbitrary behavioral strictures that build them a scaffold for consensual reality. “In the kingdom of the foxes, believe only what you are not told.” The protagonist also finds love, protecting against and navigating with it this treacherous world. The treacheries themselves revolve around a rather ridiculous mad scientist and wannabe revolutionary’s plan to deafen the population of either the United States or the world. It’s never quite clear.
The protagonist’s newfound soulfulness inside the madhouse feels like a coincidence. Maybe that’s unfair. Maybe I’d be less bugged if Ball’s vices didn’t remind me so much of my own bad habits. The tendency to purple prose — to eggplant, mulberry, wisteria, to Pantone 19-3540 Purple Magic prose — gets goddamn annoying. Quickly.
Birds were diving back and forth between the limbs of trees, and an ephemeral greenness cast by the morning hung over the late-autumn park. He would have liked to tie strings to all the birds, to all the branches of trees, to all the whirling leaves and the swells upon the river, and pull with his hand, here and there, the glad enormity of that morning, of that very Sunday morning. To take up in his hand the paths across which he had come, the boy running ahead upon the path, the boy behind, his face covered, the bald shopkeeper with his regimented monies….
That’s just a random easily net-accessible selection. The characters also talk that way. Action — walking down a hall, opening a door — is imbued with the same gravity, as are political broadsides, though those exchange compound sentences for sophomoria. And New York Magazine‘s blurber likened him to … Graham Greene? It’s probably not her fault, she likely didn’t have time to read it, but please. (For some reason I keep thinking of A River Runs Through It; if that was an oil painting, Samedi was an art student’s Warhol, but without a sense of irony.)
And to top it off, just to make it more of a funhouse mirror, he used the same narrative device I did in my final short story.
Image: Thomas Mues