Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Books: Samedi the Deafness, by Jesse Ball

Not unlike Laird Hunt's The Exquisite, Samedi the Deafness is a kind of fascinating noir mystery that can't help but disappoint at the end. The story is that of one James Sim, who, in the novel's first pages, finds himself in conversation with an old man bleeding to death, the front of his body ravaged by a knife. Before expiring, the man raves incoherently, mentioning the name "Samedi," so that once James finds himself alone again, reading a newspaper, he is rather surprised to see the name Samedi there as well, as part of a suicide note found on the body of a man freshly dead on the lawn of the White House. After a strange encounter with a strange girl, another day comes, bringing another White House suicide with another Samedi note. More disconcertingly, a rubber mask of James' own face has been delivered to him, along with a note of warning. And then, James is kidnapped.

He is taken to a house that doubles as a hospice for liars; there is an extensive rule book, full of arbitrary but painfully specific instructions for all aspects of living at the house, particularly with regard to who can speak to whom and when. The girl, it turns out, has a secret room adjacent to his, from which she can monitor everything he does; she is in love with him; her name is Grieve, but also Lily Violet. There is also a maid by the name Grieve, who also seems to want to help James; there is also Grieve/Lily Violet's twin sister, who looks just like Grieve, and in fact pretends sometimes to be her. Grieve's father, who owns the house/hospital, tells James that Grieve does not have a twin sister and that she is a liar. Grieve tells James that her father is lying. An old man tells James not to trust the maid Grieve, but James doesn't know whether he can trust the old man. He is told that he is free to leave the house at any time, and he wonders whether he should go to the police with what information he has gathered, but he doesn't know what is true and what isn't, and it seems that the police are looking for him, because they think that he killed a man (when actually he only inspired that man to jump out of a window and kill himself).

The book lasts seven days, and each day another suicide occurs in front of the White House, leaving behind a note with a warning and the name Samedi. The owner of the house is behind these suicides, and behind a plot that James is desperately trying to decipher, though he has been chosen to be saved, not just because Grieve/Lily Violet loves him, but because of his trade as a mnemonist (a mystery in and of itself). It is in the final pages that we find out, along with James, that the owner of the house plans to deafen the world with a chemical cloud that will emit a poisonously high-pitched sound; he will protect himself and his co-conspirators in a sound-proof chamber in the basement. He wants James to commit all of his documents to memory, so that they can be burned, the evidence against him destroyed. And the plan goes forth, and the book ends.

This is Ball's first novel (he is, more often, a poet) and, until we find out just what the evil plan is, it's an impressive first effort, imaginative, exciting, and beautifully written in succinct, staccato, spaced-apart sentences. James has flashbacks to childhood conversations with an invisible talking owl, his mentor; they are dim, dreamy, and tender. But at the end, I was as disappointed as I was by the end of The Turn of the Screw; this?! I thought. This is the terribly evil plot? A cloud that makes a deafening noise? But in fact, there could be no inventing a plot terrible enough not to disappoint, or cloy, or cause one to giggle; the threat is too great, the tone too ominous, the writing too fine to warrant the disclosure of what the terror could be. And terror itself is not terrible because of the specificity of the act; it is the aftermath that is terrible. And so no plot, even the flying of airplanes into the World Trade Center, can sound anything but silly until it actually happens, and fear and pain and madness ensue. We haven't any of that in this book (we wouldn't, I don't think, want it), and so it seems safe, if odd, to giggle at the noise-making chemical cloud.


Anonymous said...

Why are you so sure that the plot is real? It seems like when you get to the book's end -- it still could all have been made up, no? That they are all still tricking him and have been all along?

Dahl said...

I'm not so sure at all, in fact. But Ball doesn't give us any reason not to trust our narrator, does he? (As opposed to Hunt, who in The Exquisite makes it rather clear that our narrator has had some hard times, mentally, for the past two years.) And whether the plot is real or not (and do you mean the plot of the BOOK or the plot to deafen the public with the noise-making cloud?) seems irrelevant to my argument, which is that disclosing the mode of terror breaks the tone of the book, and weakens the story.