Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings

A Brief History of Seven Killings A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Marlon James has written an extraordinary novel. The question is whether that novel is all of A Brief History of Seven Killings or just the first 300 or so pages of it.

Those first 300 pages are a riveting, multi-narrator account of the attempted killing of Bob Marley, referred to always and only as “the singer,” who has just agreed to perform a peace concert that has engaged him in the political and gang wars of Kingston. We hear from all sides – the would-be killers, gangsters with a stake in the peace concert, a woman who’s slept with Marley, a C.I.A. operative, a journalist from Rolling Stone, and even a ghost – and the incident grows ever more kaleidoscopic and compelling with each new insight.

It’s a vicious story, but James tells it so lyrically that you could probably compile a collection of aphorisms – if not straight-out poems – from his incidental lines and observations. Many of these sections would work as stand-alone short stories, character studies of people who are either so desperate that they can’t take their eyes off those in power or people who hunger for a mysterious something that only Jamaica, with its apparent exotic power, can offer.

And when that story arc ends, it’s almost like exhaling. James wraps it up neatly, and we get to know the differing disappointment and despair of the different participants. It feels like the end of the story, and I can easily imagine an editor saying, “Let’s just release this part of it. If it does well, maybe we can package the rest as a sequel.”

But the rest is here, and that makes A Brief History both not-so-brief and a history of a different kind. Just as it eventually turns on more than just the incident with Marley, it also turns eventually on more than just Kingston and more than just Jamaica. It aspires to be not just a gripping story, but something of a national epic, an exploration of the boundaries of Jamaica as people live it, not as the maps show it.

That larger novel is not as much an adrenaline rush as the Marley arc, nor is it as much “fun” in the conventional sense. What’s at stake is nowhere near as clear, and even the powerful lyricism starts to bleach out. These are characters who, though desperate, are farther away from the possibility of immediate death, and that seems to sap some of the poetry from their experience. They have the limited luxury of enough time to sort out what’s already happened, and they can be more aware of one another as players in a larger plan, a larger scheme.

Nevertheless, it’s this larger novel that’s won the Man Booker, and that fact, if nothing else, compels me to think about it on its own terms rather than on the terms of that initial story arc. And, I think, A Brief History does indeed work as a whole in a way that’s more subtly but perhaps even more memorably satisfying.

In other words, this novel as a whole makes the claim that the experience of New York’s crack wars – and the experiences of the Americans caught up in it (whether the gay Chicago hit man, the Rolling Stone journalist, or the semi-addled old man who gets caught up Marley’s one-time sweetheart) – is a Jamaican story. What happens in Jamaica does not stay in Jamaica but, instead, makes of America a kind of greater Jamaica.

That move, subtle as it might be, makes the radical claim that Jamaica can, in its way, colonize New York. This novel is not an “American novel,” not one that presumes to find a grand, generic American experience in every detail of its characters’ experiences. Instead, it’s a “Jamaican novel” in that same sense. It imagines a Jamaica, and a Jamaican experience, large enough to accommodate all of us who are caught up in the peculiar rhythms and ongoing history of the place.

The last 400+ pages of the novel, then, are less gripping and probably less satisfying than the first part, but they remain powerful and intriguing. And, in their way, they break even more radical ground. Just as the novel as a whole expresses contempt (with an occasional does of ambivalence) for the way privileged white Americans think they’ve made Jamaica their own because they’ve vacationed there, it gives us a glimpse of America through those same colonial eyes.

There are glimpses of that third-world-gets-to-criticize-first-world inversion, a man-bites-dog rarity in matters of global import, as early as the first part where we hear from multiple impoverished would-be hitmen even though they’re characters who might more conventionally be shown as a single perspective. Instead, it’s the whites who get represented by just a couple figures, one an aggressive CIA operative and the other our nearly clueless and semi-sympathetic reporter.

By the end, we have a novel where the colonial voices drown out the white ones – literally in the wrap-up to the reporter’s ambition to write the eponymous New Yorker story called “A Brief History of Seven Killings” – and where the final concern is how a character can embrace both her American experience and her Jamaica roots.

This doesn’t go where you expect it to go – or where you might prefer it went – but, wondrously and perplexingly, it’s not “your” novel. It’s the work of someone demonstrating staggering story-telling ability and then plumbing what comes after that story, exploring the world from an original and sometimes bewildering perspective.

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