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“The Dead Never Stop Talking”: Marlon James’s “A Brief History of Seven Killings”

abhoskLife beyond this blog – that insistent, inconvenient thing – has been so full of late that I have failed, this year, to read the Man Booker shortlist prior to the announcement of the prize’s winner. In fact, I’ve failed yet to read the whole shortlist full stop. But this won’t, you will expect, prevent me from pronouncing upon it.

In no small part my keenness still to pontificate is based on the day on which I began the shortlist – two before the glittering shindig where the winner is crowned – and the book I chose to start with – Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which was, of course, the eventual winner. What this tells me is that there’s no reason to read the shortlist at all, if your game is picking the winner – just sit on the sidelines, vaguely pick up on the background mood music, and you’ll be about right.

This may or may not be fair on James, even if it more or less nails the Booker. I picked his novel as my belated opening Booker gambit because I lacked the pressure to read the lot and lacked the time to spend on so-so novels; I’d heard good things about A Brief History, appreciated the jacket art and copy, and thought I’d give it a go. This seems the way we should always pick books to read, right?

Still, back to the horserace (because that’s what matters, natch). When I started the James, I immediately wondered how any other book on the list might manage to compete: the story of a number of character orbiting around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976 Kingston, the novel has such a range of voices, so well-conceived and -executed, and such a pace and sense of energy, that I found myself excited to wonder what the rest of a competitive shortlist might be like.

Of course, before I’d even finished the book it had been announced the winner and I inevitably wondered whether I should bother with the other five at all – at least in part because the middle third of James’s novel is a good deal baggier and less taut than its opening section. This was not, that is, the perfect winner … so, given it still could not stand up to the in-the-event slightly less impressive competition, was the rest of the shortlist up to much?

On deeper reflection, this is certainly unfair on James. That opening third – which introduces a range of characters, from youths on the lowest rung of the gangs which rule Kingston’s various subdivisions to American rock journalists, and conflicted daughters of good, light-skinned, middle-class Jamaican families – really is worth the price of admission alone. James sketches a bewilderingly complex culture and society in which each side seems to be playing all the others (the dimmest character in the book, and the most straight-forward, may not coincidentally be the CIA’s operative in Kingston, Barry DiFlorio); politics shade into organised crime, organised crime into Cold War espionage. Christopher Tayler in the LRB is good on how closely this all cleaves to the reality (in short: pretty).

But in many ways the question of James’s accuracy is the least interesting thing about his novel. Like James Ellroy, who is an impossible comparison to avoid here, James is sneaking his fictions between the cracks of official history; unlike his American counterpart, he eschews real-life names and settings (only Marley is referred to by the name he had in our own world, and even he is largely known throughout as ‘the singer’): the novel’s gangsters, its towns and its reporters, all have new sobriquets. If the background figures – presidents and prime ministers – remain the same, everything else changes. I wonder about this: is there some cowardice here, in dressing up a more or less real-life event in names to protect the decidedly not innocent? What fictive game is James playing?

In part, he’s playing a game of truth or consequences, and the unreal names allow him to posit his own poetic justices for the historical acts he fictionalises: the internal lives of all these men and women are conflicted and shot through with not a little philosophising; the fake names in this way operate as dramatic masks to place over the verifiable historical truth. This is where the novel starts to creak, though: the first third, which sticks closest, except in its interior speculations, to what we know about the history it recounts, bleeds into a rather awkward second section, which strains in every way to pivot the novel to its final furlong, in which chickens come home to roost for all of the characters, transplanted now to the USA and New York’s grim 1980s. James has a beginning and he has an end (his truth and his consequences); at times it feels like he lacks a middle. This is a problem, of course, because the middle is where a book lives.

I don’t often do this sort of thing in a review, but let’s compared and contrast at length:

We see and wait. Two men bring guns to the ghetto. One man show me how to use it. But ghetto people used to kill each other long before that. With anything we could find: stick, machete, knife, ice pick, soda bottle. Kill for food. Kill for money. Sometimes a man get kill because he look at another man in a way he didn’t like. And killing don’t need no reason This is ghetto. Reason is for rich people. We have madness. (p. 9)

Is lie you tell me. Two Friends night club never deh ’bout in 1977? It didn’t open ’till ’79? Then is which club me run into Rawhide, Turntable? No star, me can’t imagine it being Turntable, boy, even the Prime Minister used to go there so. People from the good side of life mingling with middle-class people to feel like them connect to some culture, you know how it go. (p. 471)

Shit just blew up in Iran. Well, it blew up back in January, but fallout’s just reaching us now. Shit is blowing up all over the world. Chaos and disorder, disorder and chaos, I say them over and over like they have anything to do with each other, Sodom and Gomorrah, Gomorrah and Sodom. […] Jesus Christ, I think I’ve caught some Nixon fever. (p. 314)

The last of those three passages is from the troubled middle, and I think you can tell: it is more focused on exposition, on bridging gaps; it is admittedly written in the voice of one of James’s American characters, Barry DiFlorio, but even its rhythm and diction seem less natural and conversational than the first two. Where in the opening passage the accidental gang-member Bam-Bam offers a pungent-but-nuanced vision of life in the ghetto, and in the second an incarcerated former crim pokes the sort of metafictional holes with which James delights in peppering the whole novel, in the workaday central section the novel works hard. Were other parts of the novel not so very bloody good, you wouldn’t notice; as it is, the struggling second movement (“Doctor Love just fly to Miami saying he has a president to get elected” [p. 399]) tends to emphasise that A Brief History of Seven Killings hasn’t quite the iron-clad solidity of an Ellroy (not necessarily a bad thing given how thoroughly that author can be distracting by unity, but a thing all the same): it has a great setting, and some potent denouements (“I’m on the stool and I’m a fucking man, I want to say I’m a fucking man and you can’t treat people like this … but … my brief gets wet and yellow” [p. 656]); but it doesn’t always seem quite sure how to shape its material.

In one of the novel’s most compelling characters, however, there is a line of sight. Nina Burgess begins as the well-behaved daughter of a middle-class Jamaican family, resentful of her “rasta” sister and secretly pining after her one-night stand with the singer. Events conspire to force her into name changes and wide travels, but as she swaps locales and identities she comes, in her many-faced degradations, to stand for a range of roles and individuals in a way few of the other characters, locked in their self-definitions, can. At one point, she realises she “could kill anybody, even a child” (p. 284), and in many ways she in this moment resolves the theme of the novel: that murder is not uncommon or unusual, but endemic and central to the systems that govern – secretly and less so – our societies. The white man with a family at home who abandons her when his secondment to the Caribbean is over, the abusive father who casts her out of the respectable family home, the unthinking New York upper classes who pay her a pittance to care for their families: all of these are four, five, six or seven degrees of separation down the chain contributing to the quality of life of a Bam-Bam (buried alive), a Josey Wales (burned to death) or a Tony Pavarotti (stabbed in the neck by a panicked journalist). And the novel forces its readers not just to understand but to feel that.

That still leaves me wondering about the pseudonyms and about the structure; but the clarity of this novel is in its tone and voices, its pretty astounding ventriloquism. If having read it I might be able to see how there was room for any debate at all around the Booker judges’ table, I remain impressed that they chose it as the winner: tough and uncompromising, it may be imperfect – but it’s never less than vital, relevant and passionate.

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