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The facts in the case of Silence Once Begun

In Jesse Ball's tangled, enthralling fourth novel, a man confesses to a string of murders he didn't commit.

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Silence Once Begun, Chicagoan Jesse Ball's fourth novel, is a great page-turner. I say this in part because the simple language, the spareness of the exposition, and the systematic implementation of a blueprint the reader is given at the outset are as hypnotic as any metronome. I also say it because there's very little on each page. The expansive margins and blank pages between frequent chapter breaks push the reader swiftly forward.

The book is a compilation of interviews, letters, photographs, and personal commentary collected by a character named Jesse Ball, who's investigating the story of Oda Sotatsu, a man charged with abducting and killing 11 residents of villages around Sakai—modern-day Osaka—in 1977. At the time of his arrest Sotatsu was 29 years old and working for his uncle at a company that imported and exported thread. And he didn't commit the crime, though the novel opens with him writing out and signing his confession. Think Camus's The Stranger, but with bonus material, like interviews from some of Meursault's closest confidants.

Or think Kafka—only a version where the agents of power will pull up a chair and tell you exactly what was at stake in the trial. This isn't a true-crime thriller; there's no question of guilt. Even the question of motive, of why Sotatsu signed the false confession, is eventually outweighed by problems of journalistic integrity, suspicions surrounding Ball's own silence and possible psychosis; questions about the efficacy of radical, violent revolution and the culpability of a state that murders its own citizens; and, of course, whether this daring and beautiful little book is really a novel at all.

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