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Lost in the Verisylum

By (February 1, 2008) No Comment
Samedi the Deafness
By Jesse Ball
Vintage, 2007
Imagine, for the moment, that you live in a suburb of Washington, D.C., that it is a quiet Sunday morning, and that you have just settled into your park bench with your newspaper. A cry sounds from somewhere near you in the park; upon rushing over, you discover a man, lying on the ground, near death from stab wounds. The dying man tells you he was part of a terrorist conspiracy: “I was one of them,” gasps the man, “but I left, and they didn’t want me to leave. Have you seen the paper? Samedi? The conspirators? I was one of them. I didn’t have the stomach for it, and I left.” Now they have put him to death. He gives you some more names—Samedi, Estrainger, Grieve, Torquin—before his body becomes “more a part of the ground than of the world itself.”

You back away slowly.

The newspaper ominously reports that a man has slit his throat on the lawn outside the White House. The police have found a note on the body of the apparent suicide:




Within 48 hours, you—the only witness to the man’s death—are stalked, sent threatening messages, involved in another suicide, and abducted to an enormous villa in the countryside. Not only that: two more men wind up dead on the South Lawn, each bearing another sinister note from Samedi.

Such is the initial trauma inflicted upon James Sim, the unwilling protagonist of Jesse Ball’s mercurially haunting novel, Samedi the Deafness. Ball’s work here is at once slippery and propulsive, vacillating amongst myriad generic modes as it tracks James’s progress (and more than occasional lack thereof) through the mystery of Samedi’s threats. The first set of events—from James’s discovery of the dying man to his abduction—comprises the first two chapters, or days, in the novel, while the remaining five days take place inside the villa, which is actually an elaborate construction called a verisylum (more on that in a moment). The underlying plot, which James sets out to untangle and within which he eventually becomes entangled, concerns Samedi’s vague threats of deafness to a nation ostensibly headed in the wrong direction and the conspiratorial machine Samedi has developed to realize his threats.

Samedi’s scheme, however, comprises only one strand of the novel’s multifaceted narrative, and its connections to the story as a whole—like James’s connections to Samedi’s plot—seem at first coincidental at best, frustratingly tangential at worst. James is brought to the verisylum apparently merely because he was the accidental witness to the first man’s death; the various layers of Samedi the Deafness, many of them concerning James’s childhood life, are ostensibly intertwined as a result of the initial accident. Naturally, nothing winds up having been accidental or unintended, though the success of the connections will lie more in the reader’s mind than in Ball’s efforts: the overall effect may well feel incoherent and confusing.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t enjoy the journey. Ball’s conceit of the verisylum is one of the more ingenious elements of the book, for, predictably, it forces both James and the reader to question every bit of information, every testament, every lived moment. At this, the reader will undoubtedly fare better than James—one may even find oneself grinding one’s teeth in frustration over James’s occasional inability to see through the various ruses Samedi and his conspirators present. From the start, we should all be suspicious:

This is a verisylum [explains one of the conspirators upon James’s arrival]…. We believe it is the only real treatment for dramatic cases of chronic lying, cases where the lying ends up compromising the identity of the individual…. [The patients in the house are] governed by a set of arbitrary rules. There would be no prohibition against lying, but the…chronic liars would find in the arbitrary rules…a sort of structure that allowed them, as time passed, to construct an identity for themselves. The idea is that when many lies are told, unfettered by immediate comparison to fact, they end up comprising a kind of truth.

An intriguing notion, but a befuddling one. Why should “arbitrary rules” help liars make an identity for themselves? As it is, this explanation only works itself out through the novel’s general themes; the individual patients James meets seem so bound up in following the arbitrary rules that they have little time to make their lies cohere into a true sense of selfhood.

And, more problematically, the speech I quoted above ends with one extra sentence: “The idea is that when many lies are told, unfettered by immediate comparison to fact, they end up comprising a kind of truth. On that truth too lies can be based.” Aha. Even if the verisylum’s rules are followed to the letter, even if identity can be forged from consistent lies, even if the treatment is a success, lies may well beget more lies.

The conclusion we might be tempted to draw from this speech—a laying-out, it would seem, of the novel’s central theme—is that lies perpetuate themselves, and that Ball is copping out by simply stating a facile truth about the human condition. This conclusion could well be true, but I would argue more is at stake in Samedi the Deafness than problems arising from the act of lying, and that the above description of the verisylum functions more as mood than as driving core.

  In fact, if Samedi the Deafness is about anything, it is the interpretative crisis facing those who dwell in a modern world where information is presented from a multiplicity of spins and angles and where meaning and identity are at times more virtual than tangible. For James’s involvement in Samedi’s plot is in fact not accidental: he has been trained (by a large corporation of questionable integrity) to be a mnemonist. That is, he can remember, with picture-perfect clarity, large amounts of data. At the end of the day, Samedi intends to employ James as a sort of computer, by feeding to him sensitive information the hard copies of which must be destroyed (Ball may have been dismayed—or amused—to see this exact premise appear in the NBC comedy Chuck). But James, as we discover quite early on, is no mere automaton.

To begin with, while James may well have been chosen to “accidentally” witness the first man’s death (thus potentially enticing him into the larger plot), he himself decides to become involved, in a moment both foreboding and poignant (and possibly self-serving). Prior to his abduction but after he realizes the potential danger of Samedi’s threats, James sits at a café trying to decide what he ought to do before he comes to a conclusion:

A trembling then, slight, at the ankle and thumb. Someone could say to someone else in a far place, once acquainted with all the facts of the case, that it had been he, James Sim, who could have done something to prevent it. This afterwards, of course, after the tragedy, in an altered world.

Because James considers this only at the end of the first chapter, the remaining six are infused with the memory of this moment. Ball hints here at the menace of Samedi’s as-yet-unspecified plans—for fear is cultivated from the confrontation with the unknown—and the sense of foreboding hangs over the rest of the novel, shadowing even otherwise bright scenes of James’s childhood with a sense of lurking danger.

Yet the portentousness of Samedi’s plot is only one way—probably the most natural and obvious way—of looking at this strange, shape-shifting book. Samedi himself, for example, sees things in an entirely different light: he is the savior of America, if not of the world, for godlike he will wreak judgment upon the ignorant. Indeed, while it is never stated outright, it is clear that there exists a link between the curing of chronic lying and the kind of tragedy Samedi intends to deploy. Just as the vast and ever-shifting verisylum demonstrates that the relatively honorable intention of rehabilitating liars is only ever an exercise in futility, it will appear to any student of history that inflicting retribution upon an entire country will not go far to alleviating that country’s wrongs.

The theory behind Samedi’s plot is revealed thanks to James, who takes it upon himself to memorize a treatise written in code by the shadowy mogul on the ceiling of the verisylum’s library and then later to decipher it:

What must be done [Samedi’s treatise argues] is that an artificial catastrophe must be made to take place along with a specifically stated explanation. The method of this explanation must be biblical. Men are used to taking such instructions. Biblical too must be the disaster. The nation that must be humbled is the nation in which the most had once been possible, in which the greatest chance had been squandered. To Deafness, we must send a plague of Deafness, that the world learn the need to hear.

In another kind of conspiracy, this explanation would be treated as an “Aha!” moment, possibly even a revelation, for here might be the rationale behind the nefarious scheme. In Samedi the Deafness, however, the reader must—for the reader has been encouraged to all along—take the passage as either:

A. The truth, albeit with no easily-mappable referents
B. A lie, albeit with no easily-mappable referents
C. A truth built from a system of lies
D. All of the above

The safest bet would of course be option D. We are provided no sense of the state of the world which we could use either to sympathize with or to deplore Samedi’s stated intentions—that sense must come from within the reader, from the reader’s own sense of the problems of the world which ought or ought not to be rectified. And, again, the further layer of lies being built from a-truth-comprised-of-lies is important here, for while Samedi writes of “an artificial catastrophe” his intentions prove to have very real effects.

That we must wait, along with James, until the penultimate pages of the novel to discover exactly what these effects are is more than a little irritating. For by now, it should be clear that the “plague of Deafness” of which Samedi admonishes will be a very literal deafness (it will be caused by a type of cloud that emits a particular frequency that causes all to hear it to permanently lose hearing). The nation which sees things only in black and white, which is deaf to nuances or contradictions, will itself become fully deaf in order that the world might see how much care must be taken with the interpretation of facts.

And yet Samedi himself is guilty of this deafness. The new virtual truth he proposes, the deafness of the deaf, feels itself artificial. Who appointed him the arbiter of truth—particularly when, as the book’s various obsessions with doubles and mirroring work themselves out, he himself is shown to be perhaps the greatest of liars? Why should anyone, James included, believe in Samedi’s assessment of the state of the nation? What precisely is the state of the nation?

It’s a good deal for any reader to stomach, and I ought to emphasize at this point that thinking about Samedi the Deafness and reading it are two quite different activities. Again, these threats and conflicts are only a portion of the novel; the pleasure of the process of reading rests predominately with the other strands of the story, and particularly the weirdness of the thing. The verisylum’s geography, for example, shifts and heaves so that the reader, along with James, gets a strong sense both of the insurmountable size of the place and of the constant changes occurring in it. Ball sketches people and objects so sparsely that they are only just comprehensible, and he manages this in such a way as to intrigue, rather than to annoy, the reader.

What might prompt a reader (this one, at least) to try to unearth larger, more complex schemes, and to sift through the various scenes for subtle clues, is just the sense of incompletion that attends the end of Samedi the Deafness. Ball cultivates in his readers the desire to forge real meaning for Samedi and for James. One desires, at last, simple dramatic closure—but of simple dramatic closure there is none. Instead we are left with a kind of quantum state of possible endings, which may be irritating, may be fascinating, may be dumbfounding (or all three) depending on the reader.

Wending their way through Samedi’s schemes and the related plot of his daughter’s love for James are James’s own childhood recollections. In one flashback, James recalls the beginning of his training to become a mnemonist: “Will I begin to remember older things more clearly,” he wonders then, “or just things from now on?” The fact that James can potentially remember most things he encounters plays up the centrality of interpretation to Ball’s plot: facts alone are not enough to comprise truth, for facts must exist in context and must take on their meaning via their deployment. Part of the reason the verisylum seems to fail is its insistence upon arbitrary rules: one may go through the motions, but to be truly cured one must be able to comprehend the ultimate purpose behind the motions. Without explanation or context to aid the interpretive gesture, no one at the verisylum can quite manage this—so we can only imagine what will be the relative success of Samedi’s attempt.

But for James things are different. From the beginning his interpretation of present events is colored by his past life; the answer to his mnemonic question, then, is undoubtedly “both.” The plot inside the verisylum alternates with scenes from James’s early life, some almost annoyingly gratuitous, some moving, some humorous. Indeed, were these scenes not so riddled through with weirdness, they would be far more irritating than they are, for they tend to get in the way of the conspirators’ plot, which moves faster and is more chilling than the childhood stories.

Yet these scenes of a much younger James are linked to those of Samedi’s conspiracy because they establish a mood rather than drive home a specific point. These scenes, though they otherwise bear no obvious resemblance to the “current” events of the novel, nevertheless build a gradual sense of James as a person. Here was a child with a disturbing capacity for imagination, who had suffered loss, who (like the reader) desires to seek out the connections amongst objects, events, and people, however intangible those connections may be. James’s recollections provide a curious bit of calm in the chaotic whorl of the later plot strands. Such scenes are, I’d argue, what could draw readers more fully into the world of the book by helping them identify with James. Children make up their own games, have imaginary friends, deal with sadness differently than adults. These are truths more concrete and graspable than Samedi’s vague threats—indeed, more concrete and graspable than the fluid structure of the rest of the book.

Of course, these conclusions come from long hours of refelction. Samedi the Deafness will haunt and puzzle more than thrill or satisfy. One of the most memorable portions of it, for example, involves young James’s friend, an invisible owl named Ansilon. What exactly Ansilon has to do with Samedi’s conspiracy is best left up to the reader’s imagination. But the Ansilon story deals with childhood and the difficult transition to the adolescent world. Ansilon teaches James to see connections amongst seemingly-unrelated events, to believe in punishment for those who have been bad, and to value the inherent potential of things. It is Ansilon who provides James with the ability to judge his own role in the Samedi plots, who signals to him the importance of listening and interpreting facts—yet is also Ansilon who rends him most greatly, who signals the gap between the oblivion of childhood and the obligation of adulthood. Or, better stated, the openness of childhood and the deafness of adulthood.

And James knew then that all children must at some time mistake themselves and choose to leave childhood. Yet once it is done, it cannot be undone, for it is a very small door that shuts in a long, long wall.

—Good-bye, said James.

—Good-bye, said Ansilon.

And then it was pouring rain, and James was standing in the street with his grandparents, wearing a rain slicker, many years later, and he felt clearly that he had lost all that was best.

But who has the means to preserve such as that? he thought. And the world continued.

It is in the brief but myriad shining moments such as these that Ball reveals what is most haunting, most profound about his work. He is more poet than novelist, and he has a particular eye for the way words fall on a page, for their cadences and discords but also for the blank space between then. That blank space is where we as readers must be most engaged, must invest the most of ourselves—where we are obligated to interpret, to decide, and to judge.

Lianne Habinek is a PhD candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about literary metaphor and 17th-century neuroscience.