Thursday, March 3, 2016

More Marlon James. . .

Thanks again to Georgia for a post that has whetted my appetite for reading Elana Ferrante's backlist. I've got Ferrante's Neapolitan books piled up by my desktop computer waiting for me to be home long enough to put together a sustained piece summing up my response to all four and incorporating some commentary that Dottoressa has been kind enough to send me. Not having found the time to write that post hasn't meant I don't find time to read, and somehow, I've got four or five books already that I haven't told you about. . . 

Once again, I find I'm setting up some high-standards roadblocks, the kind that only lead to procrastination, although perhaps in more energetic, more disciplined writers, they might lead to better, more frequent reviews. Instead, I committed myself to trying, for 2016 at least, simply to post more often, even if the posts were fragmentary and impressionistic -- I try to imagine that you're simply interested friends inquiring about what I've been reading lately.  So for now, I'll post this observation I noted a few weeks ago, when I got back from Rome and picked up Marlon James' Man Booker-winning novel again.

Sly, sly, sly! Remember I quoted a passage from Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings earlier, a passage in which a journalist is pondering the impossibility of describing a slum. He refers to the ethical and aesthetic dilemma by which the photographic process can turn such ugliness into beauty, deceptively. That passage is meta-fictional, turning our attention to the writing process, as the journalist rereads and comments on the adequacy of his rendition of reality, even as we recognise that the journalist is a fiction of the writer, James.

So wait, it gets more interesting several hundred pages further in the novel.  At that point, we believe that the journalist, Alex Pierce, may have killed someone in self-defense, but we're not sure what has happened to him since. He resurfaces, but only as the addressee of a monologue by a prison inmate, Tristan Phillips, whom Pierce is presumably questioning for his article. The inmate comes from a life of poverty and crime but is obviously bright and is taking advantage of the prison library. Here's what he tells Pierce about one of the books he's read, "this book Middle Passage." He continues, "Some coolie write it, V.S. Naipaul. Brethren, the man say West Kingston is a place so fucking bad that you can't even take a picture of it, because the beauty of the photographic process lies to you as to just how ugly it really is. Oh you read it? Trust me, even him have it wrong. The beauty of how him write that sentence still lie to you as to how ugly it is. It is so ugly it shouldn't produce no pretty sentence, ever." (452)

I'm disappointed that I'm not like to write anything more sustained about this novel, and I can't say I'd recommend it to you if brilliant writing and astute analysis of tough political, historical, and social realities of colonialism's aftermath isn't compensation enough for violence and, well, that same tough reality which is, frankly, depressing. Still, the novel offers remarkable images, compelling characters, ample humour, if black, and astonishing style. There's a chapter that details a one-man killing rampage through a crack house in such cinematographic sharpness, with pyrotechnic use of words to create kodachrome-bright scenes, that I had to read it aloud to my husband (although I abhor movie violence in general, needing to cover my eyes).

One more quotation I'd like to include before I tuck this book back on my shelf, another quotation from what Tristan Phillips says to Alex Pierce. Having warned Pierce that it's too dangerous for him to write the book he has in mind, Phillips talks himself into advocating for the book to be written. His argument is that "people need to know" that  things were once hopeful in Jamaica, that there was once a sense that a political breakthrough was possible that would bring the change needed to maintain and increase what was good there.  Phillips says, 
We did have things going good and then it go to shit. Now is shit for so long that people grow up in shit thinking shit is all they is. But people need to know that. Maybe that too big for you. Maybe that too big for one book, and you should keep things close and narrow. Focused, I mean. . . . watch me asking you to write the whole four-hundred-year reason why my country will always be trying not to fail. You should laugh. . . . But, man, you did notice it, don't you? That's why this peace thing haunt you for as long as it did haunt me. Even people who usually expect the worst did, if for only two or three month start to think peace a little then a lot, then peace was all they could think about. Is like how before rain reach you can taste it coming in the breeze. Look 'pon me, me not even forty yet and me already seeing only what behind me, like some old man. But hey, this decade only halfway in, right? Things can go either way.

Putting that kind of contemplative language in the patois tongue of a lifelong criminal who yet believes in the power of narrative, of story-telling is just part of the power of James' novel. So yes, even though it's a tough and sobering read, I am recommending it. With a warning. . . It will move you and educate you. . . Handle with care.


  1. It seems like one more on my "To read "list :-)
    I am still on the honeymoon with Armand Gamache ( lots of people in this relationship,no?) and,this time,The Brutal Telling ( pretty upside-down,I know!)
    But,I have to share my thrill with Geraldine Brook's People of the Book with you. Have you read it? Did you like it?
    Beautiful,beautiful book,one of the best I have read lately. It is based on the true story of Hagada- The Haggadah from Sarajevo,Jewish illuminated manuscript,originally taken from Barcelona,Spain,by Spanish Jews in 1492
    The Haggadah from Sarajevo has survived centuries,wars,disasters and misfortunes. During World War II it was hidden with the help of Muslims(!),at risk of their life,as well as during Bosnian war (in an underground bank vault) and Siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serbs Forces.
    Geraldine Brooks covered war in Bosnia and Herzegovina for The Wall Street Journal.
    It is emotional,full of heart,suspenseful story of Good and Evil,people ,past and present

  2. My 'to read' list just gets longer and longer, although it should be getting shorter now I am a 'full time' bookworm.

    I am eager to hear what you have to say about Boyhood Island, my favourite Karl Ove and one I would like to read again. (The dangers of Instagram!)

    Finished The Story of a New Name and while digesting it, am reading Wait for Me!, the autobiography of Deborah Mitford, the Duchess of Devonshire. It's nice and light and full of interesting tidbits. I ordered Reading Lolita in Tehran from the library. Have you read it?

  3. I haven't been as captivated by Gamache yet, probably because I already have a list of mystery writers I follow, but one of these days. Your People of the Book, though, that I will put high up on my reading list, given your hearty recommendation.
    Georgia, Boyhood Island is my favourite as well, for now, although it's not nearly as fascinating stylistically -- I'm getting ready to say a few words about it (my husband and I had a convo over dinner last night about Knausgaard, as he's just worked his way through Book I)
    Story of a New Name might have been the least compelling of the quartet for me, although that still puts it fairly high on a How Compelling 1-10 scale). I haven't read Reading Lolita, but have been close to picking it up many times. Perhaps a trip to the library is in order, but then what would I do with the stack of unreads by my armchair. I'm like you, the list keeps going in the wrong direction -- and yet, I'm constantly tempted to add to it, as with your Mitford autobiography.. There are days when light and interesting is just the ticket!