Saturday, January 16, 2016

Marlon James and his not-so-brief history...

Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings lives up to the promise of high energy made by its nearly lurid yellow cover. The novel, which earned a series of accolades and awards, most notably the Man Booker prize, offers a variety of fictional perspectives to offer an imaginative re-creation -- a hologram, even -- of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in late 1976, against a tumultuous, violent political and social background.

It occurs to me that it might be interesting to note where I read what I read this year, at least as a memory prompt to myself. I took this book downstairs with me to the Embassy Suites Portland hotel coffee shop each afternoon where I got a cup of tea and a cookie (peanut butter-butterscotch! delicious -- the Blue Collar shop motto being, "We're Not Afraid of Butter"!). I did wonder occasionally, what those not up on Man Booker titles might make of my reading choice -- did I look like someone fascinated by True Crime?  Back to add that I now realize I got this idea of recording Where I Read from Vicki Zeigler's reading list for 2015. Always important to give credit where it's due.

While the novel thus, obviously, doesn't lack for graphic violence, it offers a wealth of compensation in humour and in the insight it provides into how such murderous and hateful violence, often gruesomely sexual, develops in ghettos, in deprivation and injustice.

Early in the novel, I was hooked by the gentle observation of a violent man who directed some of the most powerful gangs. Recalling a recent conversation with "the Singer," in which he tells the great man that "he have nothing worry 'bout from me," Papa-Lo explains further to the reader that "Truth be, I getting old and want me pickney to see me get so old that them have to carry me. Last week in the market me see a young boy come pick up him old grandfather. He couldn't even walk good without a big cane and him little grandson giving him a shoulder Me grudge the weak old man so much me nearly start cry right there in the market. I go back home and walk the street and notice something for the first time. Not a single old man in the ghetto" (27).

The story switches every few pages to a different voice, leaving the reader to weave a narrative of the fragments which begin to coalesce. One of the voices is that of a white, American man in his mid-twenties, hoping to make a breakthrough as a journalist. I was struck by something James has this character, Alex Pierce, say about "why the story of the ghetto should never come with a photo." Limning the nightmare of the Third World slum, "A vision of hell that twists and turns on itself and grooves to its own soundtrack," that "leaves the real to become this sort of grotesque, something out of Dante or the infernal painting of Hieronmyus Bosch. And then he comes to the reason he has spoken of,  the proscription against photographing  the ghetto: "It cannot be photographed because some parts of West Kingston . . . are in the grip of such bleak and unremitting repulsiveness that the inherent beauty of the photographic process will lie to you about just how ugly it really is" (81).

That's my underlining, there, not James', and I've added it because it articulates something I suppose I've known, at some latent place, but never seen so clearly.  In fact, of course, there's something of that "inherent beauty" in the creative process itself,  and I wonder if James must have struggled in the setting down of his words with that conundrum (something even of what Adorno wrestled when thinking the possibilities of art -- poetry was his example -- after Auschwitz). In fact, I wonder if his text comprises so many voices, clearly oral in the fiction, albeit obviously written into the novel, precisely to avoid the kind of smoothing-out mastery the camera's eye imposes, and which would be harder for a single narrator, writing, to avoid. I'm curious, now, to follow Alex's perception of events throughout the novel and compare his eventual journalistic record with what other characters tell me of events. What makes the section even more interesting is that the passage I've quoted from turns out to be part of an article Pierce is trying to write, and in the following pages, James pulls us back from Pierce's written voice to his writing voice, in which he rolls his eyes at his style, at his perceptions, at the way he crafts what he's seen to appeal to a certain audience.

Because I'm committed to getting these posts out on a more regular, as-I'm-reading basis, I'm going to stop here, although I've read another 50 or 100 pages since I wrote this a few days ago (therein exemplifying the problem -- it's always more tempting to keep reading than to stop and record impressions!). Before I leave, I'll just say that if you're just picking up this book, or if you pick it up on the basis of my enthusiasm here, you may find that James' exuberant use of Jamaican patois is challenging to follow, particularly as some characters use it (as in the quotation, above, from a self-titled "bad man" contemplating the possibility of old age). Hang in there, is all I can say. Trust to the rhythm to pull you through, and I think you'll find that meaning emerges. Personally, I didn't have any trouble after the first few pages, but I can imagine the syntax, especially, being a bit tough, especially on ESL readers. But this is English -- a remarkably versatile language! -- and if it was a tool of Empire and of the kind of colonialism that made the social and economic and political conditions James is writing about, it has also become a way for The Empire, as Rushdie once punningly put it, to Write Back (or, in the case of the street patois, To Speak Back!).

Okay, now I'm really stopping. Really. Chime in here, if you will. Have you heard of this book? Read it? Think you might read it? Care to share your own current reading? Or want to tell me how I'm doing with this new chat-as-I-go approach? You must know by know that I love your comments....


  1. I like your new approach a lot.
    I've just finished Emma Healey's Elizabeth is missing (and I have read Before I Wake- before!-,too)
    This book is written so suggestively that I could identified myself in different characters described there. Very,very good for a first book. And a sad one,too.
    Great description of state of mind,of fogs and clarities,frustration,despair,love ,fear.....Literate good, maybe not literatelly precisely, but as a reader I would choose the first option.
    I started to read a book (Crazy-healing doctor among artists- my translation)writen by one of our famous psychiatrists about his life and famous artists he dealed with -no names,of course-
    Funny how one thing led to another!

  2. Mater, you just took me on a literary journey. Good for a lazy Saturday in rainy land. I haven't heard of Marlon James but I might be interested in reading A History of Seven Killings. I have a hard time with lengthy descriptions of violence but I am willing to put aside some of my reservations if the story and writing is strong. Patois could be challenging for some readers but I find that if I read aloud, meaning is often more clear. I visited Vicki Ziegler's site and read about Penelope Fitzgerald which then caused me to think about which of her works I had read and how I often confused her with Penelope Lively who has also written both juvenile and adult literature. I've just started A Story with a New Name by EF. It took me time to read My Brilliant Friend because I had a hard time keeping all the characters straight. As my acquaintance with the characters grows, I can appreciate the complexity of the relationships. Today is a good day for reading and pondering unless you're on the road back from Portland.

  3. It's a lazy Saturday here too, but not rainy...this morning was -40 to -45 Celsius with windchill. Blech. I choose to interpret this as a sign to read and listen to radio. I finished rereading EF's Troubling Love and have now gone back to the days prior to WW I. Margaret MacMillan tells a good story but includes a lot of character description. I'm not used to reading history this way and am a bit impatient for some action (although any action that happens will have a horrible outcome, I know).

    I like the exercise of struggling a bit with the rhythm of the language and then settling in. And agree that where you read is part of the experience. Mater, what will you read on the flight to Rome? Will it be paper or electronic?

  4. Dottoressa, yes, I agree with everything you say about Elizabeth is Missing -- I'm definitely looking forward to whatever else Emma Healey may choose to write!
    The memoir/autobiography you write of sounds interesting -- what percentage of your reading would you say is in your first language, and what percentage in English?
    Mme: Aren't these zig-zagging reading routes fun? Especially on a rainy Saturday...I think you'd find James' novel worthwhile, especially because your interest in Latin America seems to include an interest in history and politics, particularly of colonialism and its effects. . .
    I've read numerous titles by Penelope Lively, but I don't think I've read anything by Fitzgerald, although I realise I probably have confused the names as well. As for EF, it's true that it takes a while to get the relationships worked out, and it's helpful that there's a listing and description at the beginning of each volume -- but as you say, once you get to know these, you'll find it easier going. And yes, today was dedicated to reading and relaxing, since we got back last evening.
    Georgia: Ugh!! I just couldn't, with those temperatures. Couldn't. My sister spent 20+ years in Manitoba, Winnipeg and north, and I know she's pretty proud of her hardy spirit. I think I'll just cling to my weakness, thank you very much...
    As for MM's history, you haven't much hope, in your impatience, of any good connected to plot, so perhaps you should get comfy with character ;-) . . . Yes to the exercise of struggling with language -- I like Mme's technique, as she comments above, of reading aloud. If I'm sitting in a cafe with a cup of tea, though, I content myself with "reading aloud in my head"!l
    As for the flight, I'm trying to keep my carry-on only luggage as light as possible, since I'll be traveling solo and need to be sure I can heft whatever I have whenever I need to. This is what the Kobo shines at, and I've loaded up a few e-books (including a mystery or two and a couple of Italy-centred travel memoirs). It's tough, though, having to leave the paper book I'm reading behind for two weeks -- but I'm never able to abandon a book enroute, and I'm quite sure the daughter in Rome wouldn't read ABHof7K

  5. I assume that half of my reading is in English (partly due to my wish to read originals,not translations and partly to my laziness- buying books for kindle app and get it ASAP with english-english dictionary included, is a blessing). The other half are paper books I adore and there is also my mother who loves to read but reads only in croatian,so I try to have a balance.
    Maybe only 10 percent are croatian books by croatian authors. I love our literature,some of authors are my favourite but I have read the clasics,so there are not so many contemporary books.
    The book I started to read is written in an oldfashion way but the theories of different state of mind when creating a piece of art are very interesting. So far so good.
    Dear Georgia,I couldn't imagine how is it to live on -40!
    But agree with you,I have read a book in half-island Croatian dialect,half made up language and it made sense only when I started to read aloud!
    Have a nice Sunday, all of you

  6. Forgot to respond to this, Dottoressa, sorry . .
    It must be tough for Croatian authors trying to find publication with a relatively small audience of Croatian readers. It's great that so many of us can share English, but there is something lamentable about the language's hegemony. . .

  7. My partner is reading this book now, but then he rereads his favourite authors, Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, even on the darkest nights of winter. I need the contrast of lighter times to tackle subjects I suspect will mark me with their pain. So I am postponing reading this book till longer days.

    When you mentioned the camera's eye creating beauty out of horror, Edward Burtynsky's work came to mind. And what is the writer himself doing but the same thing with words? I suspect an artist can not stop framing and reframing the world around her/him.

    I am not anticipating the patois to give me any more trouble than Shakespeare gives my students! After a few pages, I should hear the rhythm of the voices in my head.

  8. I'm more like your partner, I guess, preferring the longer, darker nights and the stormy days of winter for the heavier subjects.

    Yes, the writer is playing with this framing, with the impossibility of escaping it, by having another writer think and write and be self-reflexive about this problem, I think. Burtynsky would be a good example of creating beauty out of horror -- although an argument might be made that Burtynsky's work, because of its over-size scale, approaches the Sublime, the Awe-Inspiring, and thus is less comforting that Beauty might be, to lean on that old distinction between the Beautiful and the Sublime....