Monday, January 2, 2017

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Hardcover, 688 pages Published Oct 2nd 2014 by Riverhead Books Orig Title A Brief History of Seven Killings (ISBN13: 9781594486005)

This book is not brief; it has many more than seven killings; it redefines what a novel is. As a reader I was gratified to read in the Acknowledgements that James himself didn’t know this was a novel, either, until someone pointed to possible parallels for the style in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. James drew inspiration from Roberto Bolaño, Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, and Gay Talese among others, and the work is staggering for sheer inventiveness.

The storyline is anything but simple, told from multiple viewpoints, but basically some people killed ‘the Singer’ and nobody knows why. But while we are looking for answers, we get a whole lotta reasons for why people want to be close to the Singer or are jealous of him or are afraid of him. And it is these things that become the story.

I began by listening to the HighBridge audio production of this novel, performed with enormous skill by an exceptional actor ensemble, but soon found I wanted to see the text. James had me in such awe of what he was doing that I wanted to see the overall structure, introduction, dedication, every little thing. It is a game-changing piece of work. It won’t change most novelists work—James is in the master class—he changes how novels function.

And his voice…it is hard to describe the seeing-ness of his voice. It seems almost trite to say he got the woman thing. He got everybody’s thing. James says Nina Burgess was the voice that most clearly expressed what he as an author was thinking, but it was Kim Clarke speaking in February of 1979 (the first voice in a section called Shadow Dancin’) that broke my heart in two.

The violence…James says "violence should be violent"... and he obliges. It is a reflection, hard to believe, but a reflection of how we do not have to live. Set alternately in Jamaica, New York, and Miami, this is what happens, what we have in store with bad judgement and poor leaders. The book is very violent, and the language is both terribly funny and terribly ugly, the emphasis on terrible. It is gut-punching, air-sucking, awe-inspiring terrible. Shocking.

I am not entirely sure the book needed to be so long, but the sheer genius of the characterizations meant we didn’t really care if it was all meant to be there or not. It was a ridiculously over-the-top banquet with lots of extras. It is a little hard to get one’s arms around the novel, what with all the pyrotechnics, but like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity's Rainbow, or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, who the heck cares?

There are references to Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia in here when the CIA operatives were speaking, as well as other nefarious activities and dirty tricks by representatives of other countries, but James warns us not to read this work as history. It is fiction on a framework of research into a time that was interesting to James.

In the 2016 Charlie Rose interview James makes the comment that Jamaica’s racism is very different from America’s: “In Jamaica [racism] is endemic. We never faced it, but we didn’t have to, if everyone was bleaching their skin & trying to get their skin whiter and whiter until we’re full free.” That interesting and provocative comment doesn’t entirely explain the differences between the slave legacy in America and colonialist racism in Britain, but gives us something to ponder.

In an interview with Kima Jones and reprinted on her blog, James tells us that the post colonialist mindset and unconscious racism has been picked up by white women:
"I have very little patience for…stories and…movies [that use white characters to legitimize the experience of black characters]. The traditional ‘white guy goes through a three-dimensional experience served by one-dimensional black people.’ Funny enough, the people who are doing it a lot now are white women. I’ve spoken about this, and I’ve never been shy to talk about it. I had a Facebook post where I said, ‘White women, please don’t become the new Orientalist, because we didn’t like it when white men did it.’ This sort of ‘I had my three-dimensional, life-changing experience surrounded by all of these Negroes or all these Asians or all these people from the South Pacific.’ Enough…I didn’t want the existence of my white characters to be validation or justification or proof of the existence of these other, many Jamaicas within Jamaica."
See what I mean? Provocative. Interviews with Marlon James have left me like a deer in the headlights, too stunned to complete my next thought straight away. I am more used to his answers to common questions now, but he can still be utterly surprising and completely absorbing. A few links to some of his interviews, all of which are interesting, are below.

Indie Wire, Dec 24, 2015

GQ Review, Oct 13, 2015

Rolling Stone Review, Jan 6, 2016

Charlie Rose interview, Aug 25, 2016

The Guardian , October 14, 2015

The Telegraph, Oct 13, 2015

Kima Jones Blog, undated.

NYTimes, Sept 21, 2014

Vogue, Oct 28, 2105

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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