“Jesse Ball” investigates a series of disappearances, a wrongful conviction and a love story in modern-day Osaka, Japan.
“I am trying to relate to you a tragedy.” So begins the fourth novel from Ball (The Curfew, 2011, etc.), who makes readers’ heads spin yet again with a darker but more tempered version of his strange, almost whimsical multimedia creations. It’s worth remembering that the author started as a poet, and he is as interested in visual mediums as he is in narrative ones. It’s also worth remembering, even as the author says this work of fiction is partially based on fact, that Ball has been known to teach classes on the art of lying. This somewhat noirish thriller has more in common with Ball’s uncommon thriller Samedi the Deafness (2007) than his more recent experimentations. It starts with a lost bet over a card game. A young man named Oda Sotatsu makes his living buying and selling thread in the village near Sakai. But young Sotatsu fell in with a bad character, Sato Kakuzo, and a girl named Jito Joo. In premise, it sounds simple. “He and Kakuzo made a wager,” Ball writes. “The wager was that the loser, whoever he was, would sign a confession. Kakuzo had brought the confession. He set it out on the table. The loser would sign it, and Joo would bring it to the police station.” For this mistake, Sotatsu is convicted of the “Narito Disappearances,” the alleged murders of eight elderly people. Ball projects himself into the story as a journalist, which allows him to build his novel from a whirling collage of court transcripts, family interviews, photographs, and confessions both false and true. Through it all, Sotatsu keeps his silence, while Ball delves into the mystery of Jita Joo’s role in this tragedy.
Ball may or may not explain himself in the end, but there’s no denying the fascination his aberrant storytelling inspires.