Book review, Carabbean literature, Literary criticism

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.

Marlon James pic

Jamaican writer Marlon James; winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize for his third novel A Brief History of Seven Killings.

When I heard that the Man-Booker Prize had been announced I quickly Googled it – I was between classes and so I had to be quick, then Googled “Marlon James”, found the ebook on Amazon, and read the first page; or as much as I could in the time that I had. I got excited and quickly texted my sister, a keen reader, in the Barossa Valley to tell her the news and share my excitement. It was a new voice. I downloaded the ebook as soon as I got home.

Reading A Brief History of Seven Killings is like paining the Sydney Harbour Bridge; as soon as you finish you feel an urge, yeah, a necessity, to start all over again if only to prove you have missed something. However there’s a bloody lot you can miss and not miss it.

 He didn’t have to put brief in the title (it so isn’t) nor seven killings (there are many more) in order for us to understand this is fiction; it is, but it is also based on fact (What fiction isn’t?), albeit, just a little bit.

It’s based loosely around the unsuccessful assassination attempt on Bob Marley (“the Singer”) in 1976. It is told through multiple points of view and voices, all in the first person, male and female: local gang members, hit men, enforcers, politicians, CIA station chiefs, journalists, lovers and wives, fixers, and even a dead man; and all in low American and Caribbean English in all its rough and street-wise disguises, Jamaican patois, dialects and accents that will send grammarians screaming from the room.

Shotta Sherrif killing him own now? Him no know say able-bodied man rationed? he say. Must be Eight Lanes birth control. Everybody laugh. I say Mama and Daddy and can’t say anything else but he nod and understand. You want to kill him back? he say and I want to say for my father but not my mother but all I say is y-y-y-y-y and I nod hard like I just get hit and can’t talk. He say soon, soon and call a woman over and she try to pick me up but I grab my Clarks and the man laugh.

 James is not a subtle writer. He’s brash, over the top, risky, outrageous, uncompromising, dangerous, fool-hardy even, but in the end you have to admire the final-effect; it’s like up-close thick ugly paint blotches that when you stand back it all merges into a beautiful attitude-altering scene; and it’s sometimes even funny.

I was inside a woman whose name I cannot remember but she stopped me complaining of thirst.

It’s rude, bloody, violent, numbing at times, annoying, rich, frustrating, sloppy, and self-indulgent.

And the boy mother shout, Lawd! Woi! Tek pity ’pon the boy, Papa. Is ’cause he no have no daddy fi teach him them things! And is lie, she lie, look how she pussy dry up. Josey Wales just hiss because Papa-Lo thinking too much these days, but then Papa rip off the boy clothes and yell out for a machete and beat the boy with the flat side, every whack slapping the air like a thunderclap, every whack slicing the skin a little. The boy bawl and scream but Papa-Lo big as tree and faster than wind. Do, Papa-Lo, lawd, Papa-Lo, but Papa-Lo, is caw she did want me buddy and me never give her, he say, which only make Papa-Lo worse.

To escape his lisp and a limp wrist “outing me as a fag” James as a boy hid away in Dickens’s London, Huck Finn’s Mississippi River or Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters; as a young man he hid in the church but then he read Salman Rushdie’s Shame hidden between his leather bible covers:

“I had never read anything like it. It was like a hand grenade inside a tulip. Its prose was so audacious, its reality so unhinged, that you didn’t see at first how pointedly political and just plain furious it was. It made me realize that the present was something I could write my way out of. And so I started writing for the first time since college, but kept it quiet because none of it was holy.”            The New York Times Magazine March 10 2015

Marlon James (born 24 November 1970) is from Kingston, Jamaica. Both parents were in the police force; his mother became a detective, his father a lawyer. Three quarters of the university population were female; a literary or academic career for a man seemed foolhardy; James studied just that; and life off campus was also tricky: he was fearful of becoming a victim of the local rage against “batty boys” – gay men.

“I knew I had to leave my home country — whether in a coffin or on a plane.”

The men haven’t touched you yet but you’ve already blamed yourself, you stupid naïve little bitch this is how man in uniform rape a woman, when you still think they are there to take your cat out of a tree, like this is a Dick and Dora story.

 “The more I second-guess, the more afraid I get. The more overcorrecting I do, the more I second-guess myself, the less risky I get. Half of the risks that are in this novel would not have happened if I stopped to think about it.”

[Risking what?]

“Risking excess. Meaning: two back-to-back explicit gay sex scenes near each other, or seven-page sentences, or a climactic moment in a novel written in free verse. Things like that. It just felt right. I didn’t think about it. I just went into it.”

Well, Marlon, you should’ve thought about it, or at least your editor should’ve, someone should’ve. No, seven-page sentences are not enjoyable, and just because there’s no punctuation doesn’t make it a sentence; it’s just seven pages full of words that at the end of the seventh don’t mean anything. The free verse “climactic moment” works, to a point, but that it comes just before the half-way mark is annoying: what’s all that stuff that comes after it? I lost interest. Even the sex-scenes don’t make it worthwhile.

If you attempt it, sit up straight in good light; be alert; don’t you dare read it lying down; read it in large chunks; set yourself page goals; turn off your phone and TV; send away the kids and tie up the dog; turn off your grammar gene if you have one; better still, put on the alarm and get up in the middle of the night when everyone and everything is playing dead and sink yourself in it.

Marlon James is currently teaching literature at Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota; writing a fantasy novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first in a series; and working on the screenplay with Eric Roth (Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) for a TV series of  …Seven Killings to be produced by HBO, which is encouraging since they may be able to decipher the narrative and elide the vast cacophony of words that gets in the way of it. Television is narrative.

“I didn’t set out thinking, [like some say] I’m going to push the boundaries of what is a novel. If anything, I did the reverse. I’m like, “I’m going to stop thinking about the novel and just write and go wherever feels right at the time.” Yeah, right, Marlon.

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