Official Jesse Ball Website
Official Vintage Website
A Review of Ball’s Samedi the Deafness (2007)
May 27, 2008
Samedi the Deafness (Vintage, 2007) is the latest novel from the widely published Jesse Ball, whose work has appeared in
respected publications such as Best American Poetry 2006, The Paris Review, Tin House, and several others. While
the cover art and plot summary are both quite alluring, the title Samedi the Deafness makes absolutely no sense
until one reaches the very end of the book, which is predictable yet somewhat satisfying. And even if you do
understand French—“Samedi” translates to “Saturday”—the title’s meaning remains cloudy. If you can tolerate the
esoteric title, however, there is an intriguing, if overwrought, story to unravel.
Specifically, the plot centers on James Sim, a mnemonist by trade (“someone able to perform unusual feats of
memory,” says WordNet), who one day witnesses the aftermath of a stabbing in a nearby park. The victim, who goes
by the name Thomas McHale, “must have been stabbed at least a half dozen times” (6), and with his last
breaths, informs Sim that he must bring his murderers to justice, ominously describing the purported ringleader
known as Samedi. Naturally, though, McHale mentions numerous others involved in the crime—“The daughter,
Grieve, said McHale. The handler Torquin. Many of them in a house, I can’t even say where. I was held there.
I jumped the wall, ran for hours” (9).—which gives the inexperienced Sim enough clues to investigate the
Needless to say, impeccable organization is a key component of Ball’s most recent offering. The book itself
contains seven chapters that span over 280 pages, and concerning the former, each is a day: “day the first,
day the second,” etc. So, while Sim traces the trail that he thinks will lead him to McHale’s murderers, both
Sim and the reader learn, via newspaper clippings, that during each of the seven days, Samedi sends an
emissary to commit suicide in front of the White House. For instance, “William Goshen, thirty-eight, a native
of Washington and practicing psychologist, cut his own throat with a knife as he stood facing the White
House” (12). Every suicide note warns of worse things to come. And yes, Sim does eventually find the
labyrinthine house that McHale spoke of, but in an unexpected way.
Luckily, the above-mentioned house contains a cast of vivid characters that, unfortunately and maybe even
paradoxically, both clarify and further confuse the convoluted plot by contradicting each other to virtually
no end. This, too, is where the novel’s primary weaknesses lie. While the house is full of idiosyncratic
characters, rules, and history, for that matter, the pace slows immensely once Sim decides to remain at his
current whereabouts. In other words, acting is more or less traded for talking, which becomes irksome since
the opening chapters are so action-driven. Likewise, Sim is informed that he’s allowed to come and go as he
pleases, but is encouraged to stay within the confines of the property. This is yet another way that Ball
lessens the tension to a detrimental degree.
Furthermore, an additional misstep is Stark’s (Samedi’s?) revealing of his dastardly plan as cliché villains
are wont to do. However, it does beg the question: how else would Sim learn about the impending events if not
told outright? If it wasn’t for the semi-saving grace in the form of Grieve’s affinity for protagonist Sim, a
quasi-relationship which creates conflict in several ways, a large portion of Samedi the Deafness would be
incredibly different, needless to say. Still, many of the characters act in a realistic, if overblown, manner,
and much of the narrative is believable, providing one is able to suspend his or her disbelief for the duration.
Aesthetically speaking, curious decisions were made that render Samedi the Deafness a quicker read than it lets
on. A hefty amount of the book is double-spaced—anytime there’s a new paragraph, basically—and numerous pages
are more blank than not. Was this a stylistic choice, or was it a conscious attempt at lengthening the
manuscript? Both, perhaps? Additionally, the text is left justified, which obviously means there are no indents
to be found. All of this stacks up, resulting in the conclusion that this certainly isn’t the best looking
novel out there. Nevertheless, the newspaper clippings (in a different voice, thankfully), book
excerpts (italics), notes (yeah, in italics too), and occasional diagrams (handwritten), work in Ball’s favor
by providing respite between standard blocks of narration.
Overall, this novel is less rewarding than I hoped it would be. Though it gets off to a puzzling,
interest-piquing start, the unreliable characters, Gordian knot-like plot, and rehashed elements relegate
Samedi the Deafness to the average pile. It could be argued that this is a classic case of a story being too
complicated for its own good, and while I can’t wholeheartedly agree with that, I do believe that Ball’s
dishonest characters are the true culprits.
For better or worse, specific traits of this book reminded me of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Huxley’s Brave
New World, and Thomson’s The Book of Revelation—each a superior effort to this mediocre installment. Samedi
the Deafness shows promise no matter what anyone says, but the execution is lacking.
Editor-in-Chief Jason Jordan is a writer from New Albany, Indiana, who always says he’s from Louisville, Kentucky, because people actually know where
that is. His work has appeared in The2ndHand, Pindeldyboz, VerbSap, and many other publications. Jordan’s first book is entitled Powering
the Devil’s Circus. He is in the MFA program at Chatham University, in Pittsburgh. Visit him at his