Writer, poet, and visual artist Jesse Ball lives in a world of experimentation.
Known for his spare prose and stylistic playfulness, Ball’s latest novel, Silence Once Begun, is an exercise in truth-telling and form, with a narrative curiously mapped out using tools often at the disposal of a journalist. Rather than conjuring his story through the standard structural tenets of fiction, he uses interviews, testimonies, research notes and even photographs to comprise the pieces of his elegant puzzle. Hinging on the disappearances of several individuals in 1970s Japan, the falsely signed confession to the crime, and a silence that consumes the confessor-cum-prisoner, the book is both mystery and an investigation of the personal. The narrator, a writer also named Jesse Ball, finds himself drawn to the truth of this particular story because of the dissolution of his closest relationship: After his wife ceases to speak and their marriage ends, Ball seeks to understand the nature of silence—who is consumed and why it takes hold.
Silence Once Begun begins with a disclaimer that it is “partially based on fact,” which Ball (the author) notes was the book’s starting point. Mostly written over the course of a week and a half in the late summer of 2011, the novel was an attempt to sort through the pieces of a collapsed relationship. “I had had a difficult moment in my life,” Ball says. “So in a way, I would say, it’s autobiographical in that sense—that it’s attempting to evoke a specific set of circumstances, emotionally, if not factually.”
Of the many rebellious stylistic choices Ball makes, the decision to name the narrator after himself and place him, at the beginning of the novel, in Chicago—where Ball resides—helps further blur the lines between fact and fiction. “I think when he does have a name, the name should be mine,” Ball says, “because, in a sense, I would say, the journey that he is on in the book was really a very sincere effort on my part to…just continue to figure out what I was trying to figure out, and see why we should bother getting up in the morning in such a simultaneously terrible and delightful world.”
This is not the first of Ball’s novels to traffic in the macabre and strange, let alone the first to tackle what is true and what isn’t. It is also not the first to wrestle with what makes for a subjective reality and what makes for an objective one. Samedi the Deafness, his debut, takes place in an asylum for liars, while The Way Through Doors is a labyrinthine examination of memory, with the invention and reinvention of story guiding the narrative. Even “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr,” for which Ball won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize in 2008, is a poignant questioning of the reality and subsequent absurdity of tradition and honor.
An aversion to the rules of form, threaded throughout Ball’s writing and visual arts career, began in childhood. “I was angry about many things,” he notes. “I think I was a contrarian from an early age, where it wasn’t about rebelling against authority so much as I just didn’t really believe in any authority.” This attitude, he says, led to poetry, which later led to fiction writing. “I went through my life rather haphazardly,” he says. “I was forced into being a poet by my total disregard for the tasks I was supposed to do.”
Nowadays, Ball—who is a self-described loner with a penchant for taking long walks, even in single-digit weather—imparts this mentality to students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Though he teaches in the writing program there, his classes, he insists, aren’t just for writers. “I think any sort of human being fits well into the kinds of classes that I teach,” he says, “because they’re really about permitting yourself to really interpret your experiences and have a happier and more effective and more interesting existence.”
That creative existence, for Ball, is about making a world for one’s self, preferably one akin to a scientist’s. “It is common for me to try to create a visual analogue for the work in whatever space I’m inhabiting,” he notes, “in order to give myself this feeling that something is happening, that I’m part of some kind of experiment in some laboratory. It’s much easier to jump out of bed and address the next part if the walls are lined with books.”