Monday, September 17, 2007

Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball

You sometimes see discussions of "literary quality" as if it were a stamp that a work either bears or doesn't. This is wrong, of course: it's a continuum, from the most tone-deaf of plodding stories through so-called transparent prose up to high flights of poetry. Unfortunately, some writers are not content to stop there, and shove the boundaries of literary prose too far in the other direction. For example, this paragraph from the first page of Samedi the Deafness, a first novel by my fellow Vassar alumnus Jesse Ball:
It was early yet, and the clouds that had gathered near and made of themselves rain all through the night were now intent on going elsewhere. But it takes the minds of clouds a long time to effect their prodigious actions; the immediate result was solely a sort of paleness, a lightening of countenance.
We have here the hints of a Winnie the Pooh-ish tweeness in the anthropomorphization of clouds, and more than a little writing that is incredibly aware of how "fine" it is. We also have a book that we can tell will not be satisfied merely to have us read it; we will have to grapple with it, to hack through thickets of metaphors (and metaphoric thickets) to get to whatever it prizes at its heart.

So we have here a story told in overly-poetic language, a story that wants us to consider it more than just a story. But what kind of story is it? James Sim is a man in his early thirties, a mnemonist in a USA (presumably; there's a Washington, D.C., but I don't believe the overall polity is named in the book) very much like, if not identical to, our own. He finds a dying man one day in a park and the man tells him of a conspiracy, run by a man named Samedi, to do something horrible very soon.

Sim investigates the man's claims, and, of course, finds that the conspiracy is real. He is locked away in a strange hospital-cum-private home to await the horrible thing. But this is not so low a thing as novel of suspense -- this is a literary novel, so what little violence happens is distanced, and the hero is never in physical danger. The book is structured into seven days, each one (until the very short seventh) longer than the last, and what Sim mostly does with his time is wander about and talk to the same people over and over again. The hospital, he learns, is for liars, so he is lied to over and over again, though, for a supposedly smart guy, he never seems to remember that they are liars.

There are books that are called "dream-like," and I bet some reviewers will use that phrase to describe Samedi the Deafness. But, to my mind, what this novel is really like is some old Infocom text adventure game -- Samedi the Zorkness, perhaps. Our hero wanders aimlessly through endless, undifferentiated corridors and rooms, searching for clues or a way out. He meets the same people over and over again, who tell him different things and try to enlist him in their plots against each other. At defined intervals, the scene ends and our hero wakes up in his room again, with the number of possible moves before the game inevitably ends reduced yet further.

I shouldn't be too harsh. Samedi is written in fine prose, and knows how not to overstay its welcome. It doesn't have a lot of plot, but it does have an amount sufficient for the story it's telling. And I won't even get into the oddness of the evil plot; this isn't a genre book, so the mechanism for the villain's horror-machine is to be taken as a McGuffin, rather than explained through anything as down-market as science. It's a book for people who read literature rather than those who read fiction, though they might think they're dangerously slumming with Samedi's thriller-plot summary. I do hope that Ball, having gotten this out of his system, will turn to actually writing a story, but that might be too much to expect.

1 comment:

mark said...

What's up Hornswoggler.
I don't know if you're interested or not, but I recently interview Jesse Ball.
Check out the good words:

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