Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball
Vintage Contemporaries, 2007
One morning in the park James Sim discovers a man, crumpled on the ground, stabbed in the chest. In the man’s last breath, he whispers his confession: Samedi.
What follows is a spellbinding game of cat and mouse as James is abducted, brought to an asylum, and seduced by a woman in yellow. Who is lying? What is Samedi? And what will happen on the seventh day? ~Publisher’s Comments.
I confess that I am not entirely sure what to do with Samedi the Deafness. I reread the last page three times; considering the possible nuances each time. What was the page saying? I am still uncertain. Many times in the latter half of the book I felt like this: “James felt uncertain. He seemed to be staring at a broad sheet of paper spread out upon the ground, and all the letters wiggling and moving of their own accord whenever he looked closely.” (98)
Once immersed in the labyrinthine structure of the ‘verisylum’ (an asylum for the treatment of Liars/Lying) the already bizarre events of the mystery contort, twisting and turning until we all fall down, or the book gets set aside in order to refocus the eyes and muddled mind. There is distraction and possible digression. And I rarely mind the digression, but usually there is something to rescue in the leave-taking. I am still working out the interjections of the childhood remembrances of Ansilon, James’ only (and invisible) friend who is an owl.
In the winding trials of deciding what is truth or lie; there is the ‘what is relevant or not’? Who is whom and why? The novel is cast with a large number of liars. Worse, these Liars have little need of a motivation to lie; or do they? You have to think to read this novel. But there must be a threshold whereby the reader should not think too much. With James, you just sort of go with things.
In the going along with circumstances you lose the urgency of the part of the plot where a terrorist-type action is promised to be perpetrated. An event of catastrophic outcome will occur on the seventh day, Saturday, or Samedi (French for Saturday). By the time you decide to care again about the seventh day, rather than the romance and oddities occurring in the verisylum, some of the heat is gone. It is too late after all. Now you work to only understand why. And why might the reader feel this way? It is a combination of mental exhaustion and just going along with James’ decisions.
A bit more on the verisylum:
This is a verisylum, [McHale explains]. There was only ever one before this, built in 1847. 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. Instead of giving medications, or applying truth-rubrics, Margret Selm came up with her own method. She established the parameters for the creation of a country house in which all behavior would be governed by a set of arbitrary rules. There would be no prohibition against lying but the individuals present in the house, the chronic liars, would find in the arbitrary rules, which, 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. On that truth too likes can be based.
The ‘arbitrary rules’ are a source of humor in their absurdity, and a device to further the mystery saturating the book. “Cases where the lying ends up compromising the identity of the individual,” is an idea explored from cover to cover. Due to the Lying of many of the characters, there is confusion as to who they are—really? And we need to know who they are and how they are involved in the plot to carry out the Samedi-threat; at the very least, we want to know what they have to do with James and his outcome.
And is James a Liar? And in what way? A mask, a perfect imitation of his own face, was provided him (33). One of my favorite quotes of the book: “Sunday was always the best days for being the self you had intended to be, but were not, for one or another reason.” James relays this thought on ‘day the first’, on the first page of the novel. He is going out to be the self he intends to be and ends up in the midst of a political intrigue and a romantic entanglement.
There are the Hitchcockian twists of what is and what is perceived. Also there is a political component, a criticism. When abducted, James is driven “in the northwest direction” (45), and he is questioned in a mansion. James is put in a situation that compromises his credibility with the police (the Mayne incident); not unlike Roger O. Thornhill in the 1959 film North by Northwest whose reliability is initially questioned.
James sits in the back seat of the car, “beside him, the third man” (45). And there is the exploration of this unknown quantity. Who is Samedi? Who is Grieve, who is…? The “third man” is a question; and sometimes I find myself thinking of James as the answer. More Graham Greene references anyone? The decent into the wine cellar at the end, in search of the bunker, the maze, the trap, the inescapable catacomb-like claustrophobia. There is even a Ferris Wheel scene (268); an iconic image in the The Third Man, 1949 (Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles).
What could those references mean but to provide an ambiance, an added level of intrigue, an exploration of similar themes and ideas? A nod to inspirational sources? We know that nothing is as it seems, but answers are not necessarily absent. The landscape is often littered with clues.
James receives a note under the door: “Do you know the story of the kingdom of foxes? A man goes to live in the kingdom of foxes and he survives only by believing that which is not told him” (225).
I choose to read this excerpt as a reminder to go ahead and take what is recalled from outside the verisylum (from before) as real, and truthful, and possible. What goes on within is subject to question. Just as James has to decide what to believe, so does the reader. In the complicated unfolding, and refolding, and yanking the sheet and whipping it flat out before you, it becomes easiest to concentrate on figuring out what James has figured out, so you can just believe as he does–which is still a bit hard going.
She [a girl James converses with] wondered how it was that anyone could write a play at all. Basing things on real life, she thought, was easy enough. But to make things up entirely, well, that was something else. I mean, it seems like you would have to be psychotic. How could you remember what was even real? James had loudly agreed with her, he too, he said, wondered how anyone might remember what was real. (21)
It is easy to get lost and distracted in the verisylum. And James’ stay is a goodly portion of the read. How his stay works into a revelation of Samedi and his notes and motives is ever present, and yet not. Negotiating the ‘arbitrary rules’ and Ansilon interactions take precedence. The onward and unstoppable passing of time toward day the seventh takes on inevitability and only how James will participate in it and/or survive narrows the focus. Sure, the mentioning of catastrophic outcomes are imagined and discussed, but do the characters or readers care. I found myself strangely lacking a sense of horror at the scope of Samedi’s terror. I was busy, as ever, with the mechanics of things: of relationships, of arbitrary rules and their subsequent interactions, the construction of the verisylum, how the object of destruction was to work, who was whom and how—or even why…sifting through ambiguities and image-ridden scenes full of ominous portent.
There are comments regarding Samedi the Deafness and Ball having a likeness to Kafka. I am thinking of the Absurdity Kafka employs in The Trial (1914). One goes mad trying to make sense out of the nonsense, out of the illogical and arbitrary systems, that some would think would have been set out perfectly logical and deliberate in its course (but in reality never really was). I have to think on the Kafka connections I feel there is something missing, and I am trying to figure out what exactly.
That last page has thrown me off…not that much of the book comes together for me.
When I consider how the verisylum’s function would “as time passed, construct an identity for [the inmates],” what might this mean for the ending, and this waking in a lit room with Grieve, and with mentions of a beginning; “we have only minutes before it begins” (281)?
James awakes on the first page, in the dark. On the last page he wakes in the light. A change has occurred; an identity formed, or merely fleshed out?
I told Sean that this is a book with which I would enjoy participating in a book club. It begs conversation; primarily, shared perspectives as to what was actually going on.
Who is Cecily? And how does her relationship with James inform his relationship with Grieve?
What of that game Rovnin?
There are plenty of discussions to be had regarding Identity, Lying, Reprisals, Perceiving/Actuality. What is visible and authentic? And what dictates/defines or illuminates either?
The format of the book…
There are two quotes to read. Then there are seven sections, each differentiated chronologically by days, starting with “day the first” and ending with “day the seventh.” You are reminded of the day, even after the single page announcing the day, upon the upper right side of the right-hand page. Seems reasonable. Except, what about the pages that do not have said reminder? And what about those pages (167-177) within “day the fifth” that read “day the first” in that reminder spot? Seems there are too many pages to have error as an explanation. And Ball appears very conscientious with his compositions. He includes drawings, affects spacing, font size, and italics or bold print; has pages with short sections, maybe only a sentence or two. He employs the dash followed by dialogue; differentiates notes. So what is going on with the days? I read those pages and wonder. Will write something of an answer when I figure it out, or someone tells me and I can share it.
A body is driven to turn the pages because they are curious. And the oddities are charming. The ambiguity can be frustrating; and the verisylum antics can elicit heavy growling sighs. Some moments feel indecipherable and I feel sure this is meant and I can be okay with this. If they were not meant, do not tell me that so I can remain happy enough with my conclusion. Ah well, never mind, elucidate at will.
James discovers what the plot asks him to, but said discovery may not lead to the conclusion one might expect. A good plot twist is a delight. I only wish I could identify the shape of the end product. I know I will have to re-read this book.
I think Ball would do well writing those quirky indie romantic comedies. I think he should cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Daschanel. His interludes between his male protagonist and the love interest are fantastic—almost overwhelmingly.
I recommend Samedi the Deafness, but I found it more difficult to pool clear thoughts or ideas from than the more accessible (though complicated) read The Way Through Doors.