The Short Version: After his marriage dissolves due to his wife’s silence, a journalist named Jesse Ball begins looking into a strange case in Japan known as “the Narito Disappearances” – a case that had no leads, no trace, until a mysteriously signed confession appears. But the man who confessed remains silent and Ball tries to uncover what really happened to Oda Sotatsu, the man who confessed to a crime he did not commit.
The Review: I’d like to frame the beginning of this review in terms of ToB15 discussion, for I know that this will be a contentious book. But you have to ask, at the end of any strange novel, if the book did what it set out to do – that is, does the ending make sense with what has come before and does it all fit into the same continuum? It doesn’t matter if the novel wasn’t what you wanted it to be, reader – all that matters is that it delivers a complete experience on whatever terms it sets out with.
And in that sense, this is actually a really terrific novel, even as I sit here feeling tremendously incomplete after the close of the final page. What did it set out to do? To tell the story, journalistically, of a strange crime from the vantage point of many years later. That’s all it meant to do, even though Ball occasionally drops in little tidbits about his own life; he’s writing this book as though he is a journalist and dispassionate journalism is what he achieves here. This is true crime masquerading as fiction – because the crime is not at all true. The Narito Disappearances aren’t real (or if they are, they’ve been submerged deep into the depths of a Google search by the more-readily-available presence of the novel). It’s just that the author treats them like they were.
It’s like if Adnan Syed, Hae Min Lee, and everybody else were all just figments of Sarah Koenig’s imagination the whole time.
Except that Ball does a better job of exploring the realities behind this strange case than any real-life storyteller could hope for – because the truth never plays out like a fictional narrative. In a fictional narrative, you can put things in the places that you need them to go so that they connect, whereas reality can often only be connected after the fact. Put another way, people are weird and irrational – only, in fiction, you can use that to your advantage instead of being at the whims of said weirdness/irrationality like everybody else. Ball is totally in control of his fictional case the whole time, leaving a strange wobble to the reading experience: we’re used to cases seeming “so strange they could be made up!” but this one is “made up but less strange than some I’ve heard”. It’s a disconnect that can leave a reader off-kilter.
But what worked for me is Ball’s prose. Perhaps it’s just because I spent the last year getting my Murakami on, but this book felt Murakamian. There was a placidity to the writing, a flow like a river pulling me inexorably forward through the book. Even in moments of high tension, no one felt like they were aggravated or yelling or appearing in any way above a moderate level of intensity. This can sometimes come off as a chilliness, both in Murakami’s work and in other similarly serene novelists – and Ball does fall into that trap sometimes – but more often than not, it is relaxing. Reading transcripts of interviews about a weird case doesn’t seem like something that would be terribly relaxing, but it’s the sort of relaxation that comes from finally sitting down to crack those three or four (or six or ten) back issues of The New Yorker on your coffee table. There’s something non-threatening about the demands on your time and brainpower and, I have to say, I appreciated that. It was no more complicated than it needed to be; it did what it wanted to do in the simplest of forms.
A note on form, by the way: it’s mostly epistolary by way of interviews and a few letters. There are some linking narrative bits, or not really narrative so much as they are just clarifying and explaining what’s coming next or where Ball was when the interview took place. The form does a lot of the work keeping Ball’s ‘narrative voice’ out of the ‘facts’ of the case: we’re hearing, by and large, from the people involved. In this way, Ball’s writing is actually that much more amazing – because he wrote all this stuff! It’s not real, he made it up! And I suppose that’s the most interesting thing about it, really – that it feels like it could very well be a real case and that this is real research and that it’s all real, even though it is fiction (with perhaps a hint or two of reality mixed in).
Rating: 4 out of 5. Did you like Serial? Do you wish it had been written by Haruki Murakami? Then this is a book for you. It’s a straightforward journalistic accounting of a made-up strange missing persons case/trial in Japan – and Ball pulls off the actually-very-difficult trick of making all of this seem real and dare-I-say ‘flat’, as though it was proper journalism instead of fiction. As such, the piece is short and fast and might leave you feeling a little “oh, is that all?” by the end – but if you take it for what it is, you’ll enjoy it.