Thursday, 15 October 2015

Man Booker Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

As everyone has said, the title of Marlon James' third novel must be ironic as there are far more than seven deaths and, unless you can happily devour a lengthy Victorian novel in a day, 680 pages is hardly brief. At least Victorian novels are serialised, although James does break the novel up into several parts, each one dedicated to a certain day. It begins on 2nd December 1976 as plans are afoot to shoot Bob Marley, who is only referred to as 'the Singer' which makes him appear far more than the simple title suggests, and concludes on March 22nd 1991 where the ramifications of the events are still felt. However, the novel is not a straightforward chronology, especially as it jumps ahead almost decades between the third, fourth and final section. Moreover, the myriad of characters that populate the novel and narrate their own experiences make the novel less a detailed timeline than a web of time attempting to cover multiple personal lives and make them coherent.
Despite that description, the novel is immensely readable and only confusing when it gets into particularities of Jamaican politics, but that is probably more my ignorance than a fault in the novel. It helps that it engages with themes and ideas that I'm particularly interested in, though that also prevents the novel from being totally alienating in addressing a non-Western culture. (Again, this is my ignorant white-guy perspective coming in, which James ruthlessly dissects as will be noted below. I merely wanted to point out my foibles, but I'm getting better, I promise!)

As you might gather from the title, A Brief History of Seven Killings addresses the nature of history and its permanence, but in a particularly interesting way. Ghosts figuratively and literally appear throughout the novel. (Although how literal a ghost can be is a different discussion entirely.) The novel begins with the suggestion that "the dead never stop talking and sometimes the living hear." The helplessness (and pointlessness) of this scenario hints at the oncoming tragedies that happen again and again no matter what the characters do, or at least so it seems. Much like another Man Booker Nominee Pigeon English, the spiritual aspects are drawn upon but only briefly referenced; they are on the edges of the 'real' world and often unacknowledged by the characters. For the most part they're completely unaware of this presence as they are busy dealing with their own lives, as they try and survive, never mind live a worthwhile life. The spectral characters provide some near-overwrought commentary but the characters themselves are perfectly capable of deep philosophical thought that derives from their own experiences; James appears to be consciously avoiding dry philosophical and social commentary in this way. One of the finest examples is from Nina, whose misfortunes stack up so high it is almost unbearable yet she is determined to prove her own worth regardless:

the quickest way to not live at all is to take life one day at a time. It’s the way I’ve discovered to not do a damn thing. If you can break a day down into quarters, then hours, then half hours, then minutes, you can chew down any stretch of time to bite size…If I don’t want to think about my life, I don’t have to think about life at all, just hold on one minute, then two, then five, then another five, before you know it, a month can pass and you don’t even notice because you’ve only been counting minutes.
This Beckettian notion of existence in a world where nothing happens most of the time is thus grounded in an incredibly profound way while not simply making the characters mouthpieces for an author's message. The characters come first so any sense of shock is dependent on the reader's own views. The novel is constantly challenging the reader and itself as it delves deep into the character's psyches so that their personal revelations feel universal in a very specific sense (which is more than this blog seems to be). Here's an example of what I mean:
This is the first mistake God make. Time. God was a fool to create time. It’s the one thing that even he run out of. But me beyond time. Me in the now, which is now which is also then. Then is also soon and soon might as well be if.
There is a lot to unpick in this novel, but another theme that stood out for me that is related to the tragic nature of time is how it can be represented. The novel is essentially a series of monologues and, while the characters do cross each other's path, they are mostly isolated from each other. Not only does this make each character individualistic and memorable, it demonstrates how when attempting to recreate history - stories of the past - there will be contradictions and difficulties to have the facts communicate on the same level. To skip to the end and ook at the Acknowledgments where Marlon James explains some of the process of writing the novel which, naturally, is very revealing and eloquent about such difficulties:
The problem was that I couldn't tell whose story it was. Draft after draft, page after page, character after character, and still no through line, no narrative spine, nothing. Until one Sunday, at W.A. Frost in St. Paul, when I was having dinner with Rachel Perlmeter, she said what if it's not one person's story?
I had a novel, and it was right in front of me all that time. Half-formed and fully formed characters, scenes out of place, hundreds of pages that needed sequence and purpose. A novel that would be driven only by voice.
His initial concern permeates into the novel and with this knowledge in mind, it can often seem like the author is talking rather than the character, to somewhat distracting effect such as here:
Somebody need to listen to me and it might as well be you. Somewhere, somehow, somebody going judge the quick and the dead. Somebody goin' write the judgment of the god, because I am a sick man and a wicked man and nobody ever wickeder and sicker than me...Somebody going write about this, sit down at a table on a Sunday afternoon with wood floor creaking and fridge humming but no ghost around him like they around me all the time and he going write my story. And he won't know what to write, or how to write it because he didn't live it, or know what cordite smell like or how blood taste when it stay stubborn in your mouth no matter how much you spit it. He never feel it in the one drop.
However, this may be a harsh criticism because, as I said earlier, James always ensures that the character is at the forefront: "I am a sick man and a wicked man and nobody ever wickeder and sicker than me"; Demus' (the character speaking) judgement of himself reveals the uncertainty which he is unable to dispel. But the best example of James adding metafictional flourishes about writing a complicated story to his characters is Alex Pierce, a American journalist working for Rolling Stone.

James resists all the stereotypes such a character would inevitably invite by showing Pierce chastising himself for putting himself out of his depth even though that is a crucial part of his job. While Pierce is subject to a particular racial criticism as he attempts to document life in Jamaica without becoming "just another white man who has the presumption to think he can school black people on their roots," the parallel between James and Pierce is clear; Pierce becomes James' agent in the 'real world', falling into the traps James predicts he himself would fall into, although he embraces the fact that he is writing a novel by making such traps more extreme and delightfully horrible then they possibly would be in reality. One of these traps is a particular section I love but as it is right at the end of the novel, I will say no more. 

On a relevant note, though, I want to pick up on Michiko Kakutani's much quoted description of Brief as "like a Tarantino remake of “The Harder They Come” but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner, with maybe a little creative boost from some primo ganja." I am only aware of two of the works he references and, unsurprisingly if you've read this blog, it is the comparison to Tarantino that seems most accurate. That is, the best of Tarantino where the narratives are connected, sometimes closely-knitted, sometimes passingly (as in Pulp Fiction) rather than disjointed and more sketch-like (like Inglorious Basterds and, to a lesser extent, Kill Bill).

I feel that Kakutani was referencing to the violence in these films though when bringing it up in his well-researched if spoilery review, as well as the way the characters speak. Both are casual, aggressive and brutally shocking - this is an 18 rated book easy but all the more exhilarating for it.* James is having fun but this is not a jokey take on serious issues; it reflects that even the most atrocious of acts and language can have a joke as part of it, especially when they are so common in Jamaica: "This country, this goddamn island, is going to kill us." The casual descriptions of these events are perfectly suited to the style of the book as each character narrates their thoughts as well as the actions. Subsequently, there are no holds barred - interesting to note not only the casual use of nigger or 'naegger' but how it is often uncommented on or dismissed as a completely unshocking word to use.

I could go on describing and quoting the characters and their fascinating stories: Nina, who begins the second part of the novel with a shocking opening ("You can't really know how it feels, just knowing deep down that in a few minutes these men will rape you") but remains a self-determined individual throughout the world that continues to threaten and destroy her; the various gang-members with their own motives and desires that inevitably causes conflicts between them, whether they are in the same gang or not; Papa-Lo who often directs his thoughts to "all nice and decent people" as he explains how he is "the baddest man in Copenhagen City. But badness don’t mean nothing anymore."

The confusion of voices is fairly minimum as they are so vivid that they can speak themselves and are soon recognisable. Helpfully, the book begins by listing the 'Cast of Characters' which I ended up bookmarking as it proved to be a useful refresh as we went from narrator to narrator.

In the end, it is the boldness and confidence that shines through the book and makes it a great read. Yes, it is often challenging and wince-inducing; it takes its time to flesh out the characters a some length so is hardly a quick read either. But I never felt I was trudging through it and already I have the desire to re-read it rattling around my brain to the sound of ska and reggae music - seriously, it's broadened my music palate so much and I am grateful for that alone. But James shows no fear in deconstructing, and occasionally mocking, these somewhat high-and-mighty literary ideas with comments like "The problem with a book is that you never know what it's planning to do to you until you're too far into it." Never is that more true then with this book, a worthy winner with its fluidity of tone and ambitious but engaging ideas making it a real standout book.

*As a little coda to this comment, I keep on seeing criticism that reference PC e.g. 'this play is gloriously un-PC'. Now I hate to be that guy, but this is such a dated phrase that it is almost PC in itself - a way to disguise saying something is disgusting or horrific or offensive etc. Those are perfectly fine words to use - use them and avoid being as prudish as you claim PC is. Banish the term to the dustbin of 'words used to the point of uselessness'.

No comments:

Post a Comment