September 19, 2007 | Comments ()

By Miscellaneous | Books | September 19, 2007 |


Is a book that appears immediately in paperback the literary equivalent of a movie sent straight-to-video? I pondered that question briefly before purchasing Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness; ultimately, I chose an optimistic point of view, deciding instead to sneer at the hardcover as an archaic status symbol, a method by which publishing houses can squeeze a few extra dollars out of the earnest reader. It was not, I decided while heading toward the cash register, a reflection of the quality of this work, for the back cover proclaimed Samedi worthy of Kafka, Hitchcock, and Lynch. I chose to believe that such praise was well deserved, complimenting myself on finding a hidden gem, a masterpiece that had slipped through the cracks.

OK, so I was feeling optimistic that morning. In my natural, cynical state, I would have laughed at the obviously empty praise of the cover blurb, knowing full well that one never actually believes what is found there. For once, though, I’m thankful I enjoyed a brief moment of rosy vision, as Ball does deliver an adequate, thought-provoking tale full of surrealism, ambiguity, and absurdism. He doesn’t reach the heights attained by the greats to which he’s compared, but Samedi the Deafness is a quick, intelligent read that, while it probably won’t astound, will at least perplex and entertain.

Ball has created a world where truth is an illusion and nothing is as it seems. The narrator, James Sim, is a mnemonist, one who is capable of remembering large quantities of information.You’d think this makes him reliable as a narrator; however, when everyone lies, no information can truly be believed. The novel begins as Sim buys a newspaper and sits in a park to read. Soon, however, he hears a shout and, upon investigation, finds a man who has been stabbed several times. Sim questions him and learns that his death has been precipitated by a mysterious figure named Samedi (literally “Saturday,” in French), the ringleader behind a great conspiracy involving suicides carried out on the White House lawn. With his last breath, the dying man urges Sim to expose Samedi and his followers.

Although Sim’s first instinct is to run away and forget the whole affair, he soon finds himself further drawn into the mystery; when he does finally make an effort to investigate, he is drawn irrevocably into a world of shadows and lies. He soon ends up at a verisylum, built for the treatment of chronic liars, cases in which one’s lying compromises the identity of the individual. In Samedi, identity is insubstantial; it is the sum of both the actual truth (whatever that is) and one’s fictions about oneself. As one employee of the verisylum explains, “when many lies are told, unfettered by immediate comparison to fact, they end up comprising a kind of truth.”

Inmates of the verisylum spend their days playing Rovnin, a Russian game which involves the creation of “proxies,” or fictional players who aid, abet, or foil one’s schemes. Samedi the Deafness is Rovnin on a large scale, and Sim never knows whether any given “friend” is at any given time an ally or a foe. To be fair, Ball’s idea is hardly a new one. Better authors have made better use of this idea. Ball’s strength lies in his style, which is austere yet poetic.

The only drawback to Samedi the Deafness is its finale. The plot races toward Saturday, the culmination of Samedi’s efforts. Had he not attempted to explain Samedi’s motivation I might be more appeased, since a lack of explanation would seem in line with his absurdist streak. Unfortunately, that is not quite the case. That he does attempt a deeper explanation of Samedi’s plot is all the worse, since his explanation is weak and poorly explored. Ball excels at creating suspense and tension, and he’s created such a build up for the denouement that one can’t help but feel left down that he doesn’t explore the depths he was capable of reaching. Better luck next time.

Bibliolatrist possesses extraordinary powers that enable her to read tall books in a single bound. As Jennifer McKeown, she spends her days as a mild-mannered English teacher living outside Philadelphia. She blogs over at Bibliolatry.

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Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting

Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball / Jennifer McKeown

Books | September 19, 2007 | Comments ()




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