Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Samedi the Deafness, by Jesse Ball

Jesse Ball's Samedi the Deafness begins with a man's agonizing death and ends with the possible conflagration of the country. In between, there are some low moments.

The novel's reluctant hero, James Sim, discovers the dying man and through a series of either bizarre coincidences or contrived deceptions finds himself at a country house that serves as the base of a revolutionary plot to overthrow the government. Or, maybe it is just a mental hospital. Or both. There are many many more plot twists along the way, including several serial liars, a few mistaken identities, one seriously dysfunctional family, and what seems like a dozen people named Grieve (including the most important Grieve, whom James falls in love with, but who is not to be confused with her twin Lara, and who is actually called Lily Violet, but whom James meets as Leonora Loft).

In trying to figure out just what is happening at the compound (which was a mental hospital at some point, and so contains endless floors, rooms and hiding places) our protagonist is of little help and even more confused than the reader. It is a nice irony, since James is a professional mnemonist, and can therefore commit to instant memory everything he sees and reads (a sort of learned eidetic, or photographic, memory). His occupation raises just one of many interesting questions posed by Samedi: What good is a perfect memory if you have no way to tell if what you learn is true or false? Can you learn a lie?

As James navigates his absurdist universe, it is difficult to tell how much of his predicament is personal, and how much is circumstantial. Aside from a few flashback to our hero's childhood, when he escaped to the woods with his imaginary friend (a pet owl named Ansilon), his biography and personality are mysteries. Kafka gets mentioned twice in the book's blurbs (along with Lewis Carroll, David Lynch, Hitchcock, Ian Flemming, Graham Greene, and Gogol!), and it's not too difficult to see Ball's James as another K., caught up in a mysterious world of arbitrary decisions, empty of logic and reason. More Castle than Trial, Samedi drops a cipher of a character into a very strange world, and leaves both its central character and the reader to figure it out.

Figuring out the mystery - for those who like that sort of thing, this is not your book - is made more difficult by a rigid style that relies heavily on contradiction, interruption, and non sequitors. James seems easily distracted, and his attention drifts maddeningly while important information is being revealed. Even the writing itself is fractured, with an extra line of space between each paragraph, compound sentences split into two paragraphs, and several odd figures (they look like clothespins) marking out each new section.

The idea behind all this would seem to be that we are very very confused people in general, and that without a lot of cheating - ignoring stuff we don't like, lying to ourselves - this is what the world would look like. Or maybe this is what the world has become when so many people lie to themselves and others, and we just don't know it because we are such good liars. The compound at the center of the novel, independent of its possible use as a radical headquarters, was after all founded on the idea that lying could be eliminated through a set of strict rules, like forcing people to wait 15 seconds before speaking, or relying on notes. The thought was that the demands of communication placed unbearable pressures on people, causing them to constantly make up their responses. Through conditioning, they could learn the simple act of thinking before speaking.

There is a notable lack of modern communication in Samedi, and I don't think it's a coincidence that the entirety of the communication in the novel is either personal or in the form of notes. There are many random encounters in hallways, and the written communication is staggering - not just the manifesto that's been written by the compound's founder, but also the complex series of notes that James receives, either slipped under the door or placed in his pillowcase. Indeed, there are notes that summarize other notes, texts hidden in plain sight, and reference to a probability theorist (invented, of course) from the fourteenth century who wrote his masterpiece in the margins of Bibles and which went unnoticed for nearly seven hundred years.

To say that older forms of communications allows us better access to truth would be a vast imposition of my own thoughts onto Samedi, but it would be interesting to consider the message. The people who practice this form of "thinking before speaking," after all, may be behind a series of suicides and a plot to unleash a major attack on the American population. Though the group certainly has their sinister aspects, by the end of the novel James seems more interested in the girl than in foiling the devious plot. Maybe it's because he believes the conspiracy is a fait accompli, but it's also possible that after exhausting the powers of reason and logic to try to save the country, he decided it was better to cut through all the bullshit and follow his heart.

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