Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness

I picked up Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball (2007) after being seduced by a New Yorker blurb that compared him to a blend of Calvino and Kafka. Because really, how could I possibly resist? The novel’s poetic title added another touch of mystique, and I picked the book up immediately in one of my not-infrequent Amazon book binges.

Oddly, though, as I started down a trail of reviews, the comparisons didn’t end with the enticing juxtaposition of Calvino and Kafka. I found Ball compared to Beckett, Lewis Carroll, David Lynch, Hitchcock, Saramago (eech, much less appealing), Hunter S. Thompson, Gogol, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Nabokov, Ray Bradbury, Borges, Charles Simic, and Guillermo del Toro–sometimes two or three in the same review.  If all of the name dropping was a marketing ploy, then it was brilliant–I’m sure nearly any reader can pluck a favorite or two out of the mix. The sum of it, though, was just strange for a new reader. I started the book with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, thinking that perhaps Ball had very little of his own writing identity and could therefore easily be molded into the form of one’s favorite style–or else that reviewers had run out of original vocabulary to describe his work and had resorted to names instead of adjectives.

I wish that I had read the novel as a blank slate, because there were elements of it that I liked a lot. The mystery of conspiracy, compounded by a complex and arbitrary system of rules (designed exclusively to create a coherent system for compulsive liars), a labyrinthine floorplan, changing and repeating character names, and uncracked ciphers, results in a really fun narrative experience with just the right amount of confusion for the reader.  The characters were a little bit flat; I found the most compelling character to be Grieve (the central one, as there are many). Ball imbues her with seriousness and odd whimsy that make it impossible to tell how she will respond to her circumstances. For example:

She stood up and hopped over. She had sewn herself into a bag the night before. She said she and James didn’t know each other well enough to sleep in the same bed otherwise, but that certainly there was no other bed that she intended to sleep in that night but his, and he had better get used to it. He had said nothing but had watched with a great deal of astonishment as she had honestly and truly sewn herself inside a bag. (85)

The prose is spare and graceful. There are not many passages unbroken by dialogue, and I wish that there were more, because Ball’s lengthier passages have a captivating rhythm to them. Even simple descriptions are poetic and just a bit surprising:

James shut the door and sat down on the hall-bench. He had always wanted to have such a bench. As he grew older, slowly he had procured for himself  more and more of the things he had wanted slightly. Finally, it was the bench’s turn, and he had procured it and set it down in this hall. Really, he never sat on it. Certainly, this was the most momentous thing that had ever befallen the bench.

In the end, though, neither the narrative nor the prose really shone in a way that stuck with me, and I finished the book feeling indifferent. It may simply be that my hopes were way too high given the Calvino and Kafka teaser. I’d really like to read The Way Through Doors (which appears to be a more complex nested narrative, even judging be the cover art) as well as The Curfew, which sounds like a more straightforward story. I’d like to get to know Ball’s style on its own terms, rather than seeing it through so many other unrelated lenses.