Samedi the Deafness
Jesse Ball's book concerns a mnemonist, James Sim, who stumbles upon a man dying from a wound in his chest who tells Sim about a conspiracy that threatens to undo the fabric of society. The same day a man kills himself in front of the White House bearing an oblique but threatening message from someone calling himself Samedi. Sim's efforts to discover the nature of the conspiracy leads him to a hospital for chronic liars who, naturally, obfuscate the true nature of the conspiracy (if there is one at all).
But that's just the setup. Once the book settles in, it's far less of a thriller than might be imagined. The fate of the nation rests in the balance, but no one, including our hero, really seems that concerned about it. If anything, Sim is more concerned with determining whether or not he can live among the conspirators than stopping them. In addition to his prodigious memory, Ball provides Sim with a surprising amount of insecurity. He's the sort of narrator capable of acting decisively on every impulse but then analyzes every action until he determines he should have done the opposite.
It slows the speed in an effective way, making the action something separate from the plot. Surrounded by diagnosed liars, Sim has to pick through their mistruths in order to solve his mystery yet the conspirators are the liars. Whatever their motives might be, whatever the nature of the conspiracy is, Sim is forever unable to reconcile the incongruous pieces of the puzzle or think beyond the last thing he's told.
(If only there was a word for books where intricate, absurd organizations confuse and frustrate an overmatched protagonist. It's sort of like something that guy one guy wrote. You know, the guy with books about trials and whatnot. Grisham or whatever.)
It's a brilliant world Ball has here, familiar only in its disappointments. But it's an elusive book, and even when I finished the final page I wasn't quite sure if Ball's meditative anti-thriller really wanted to say something about the nature of truth, conspiracy, and deafness or if those elements were just something the author discovered as he discovered the characters' names (Ball says he took from tombstones). The potential for making a political statement here is impossible to ignore since Samedi's aim is to humble and reconstruct America, yet somehow Ball and his hero don't touch on whether or not it's a good thing. Frankly, I was glad.
The point seems to be that in a world of mistruths, Sim is incapable of moral outrage. Right and wrong have become as intertwined as true and false. Until he can get answers, he's impotent and since no answer seems forthcoming, he will remain that way. That this makes him complicit never quite occurs to the character though it's hard to avoid as a reader.
It's such a strange and captivating read that it's impossible to lament the somewhat unconcerned narrator. The reader, like Sim, is too driven to find the truth to bother with the fact that there's no time to consider what the truth might mean.
Samedi the Deafness