JUNE 2008

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A Review of Ball’s Samedi the Deafness (2007)
By Jason Jordan, 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 case himself.

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.

decomP 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 blog.

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