As a term of approbation, “precious” has lost its currency. These days, the p-word puts us in mind less of rare gems than of independent films about quirky white people. But as A.O. Scott’s recent review of The Darjeeling Limited reminds us, we needn’t choose between precious and precious. In the movies of Wes Anderson, the boxes of Joseph Cornell, and now, in Jesse Ball’s unabashedly imaginative debut novel, the two senses of the word collide.
The set-up is pure Hitchcock: a (seeming) bystander, James Sim by name, witnesses an act of political murder that draws him into a web of intrigue (or, as my friend Colin’s dad liked to put it, “a tissue of lies.”) Confined to an asylum for compulsive prevaricators, Sim must ferret out the truth. Ball has followed Murakami, however, in replacing the traditional terms of the suspense novel with his own cryptic obsessions. It soon becomes apparent that Samedi the Deafness is less an epistemological mystery than an existential one. The important question for is not whodunit, but “Why am I here?”
The pursuit of an answer proves to be highly entertaining, thanks in large part to Ball’s untrammeled idiosyncracies. This 28-year-old debut novelist is also a poet and an illustrator, and his prose, in Samedi the Deafness, leavens flights of hallucinatory vision with the arch diction and mannered dialogue of mid-twentieth-century British children’s novels. (The bad guys are always saying things like, “For this reason…”) At its weakest, the novel struggles to sustain its tone; the juvenile elements decay from wonder into whimsy, the poetic ones start to feel strained. At its best, the tongue-in-cheek and the earnest harmonize to produce a vivid and dreamlike whimsy, as in this flashback to James Sim’s formative years:
“The best hiding place of all, said James’s friend Ansilon, from his perch atop James’s shoulder, is inside something hollow when no one knows it’s hollow. Ansilon was James’s one friend. He was an invisible owl who could tell the future and also speak English, although he preferred to speak in the owl language, which James understood perfectly. -But if no one knows that it’s hollow, said James, then how would I manage to know that it’s hollow? Should I just go around with a little hammer, tapping things?”
Ball has pronounced The Castle one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, and this literary debt is obvious. Like Kafka’s K., Ball’s protagonist is a patient and bemused Everyman. His character emerges not in his actions, but in his reactions, and despite his unusual gifts (a near-photographic memory, for example), James Sim is a democratic figure; he could be any one of us. Ball is less successful at creating a supporting cast. Where the inhabitants of Kafka’s village are both madcap and mysteriously human, the denizens of Ball’s asylum often seem a mere accumulation of tics. Their setting redeems them, however. With its labyrinthine architecture and wonderfully arbitrary list of rules, the asylum itself becomes a character, and a worthy foil for our hero.
In the end, the delights of Samedi the Deafness outweigh its flaws. Ball’s sensibility is, despite his many influences, entirely his own, and one can expect good things to come. (Another novel, The Way Through Doors, will be published in 2008). At a speedy 280 pages, Samedi is a welcome appetizer to what one hopes will be a rich and – dare we say it? – precious career.