Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014)

Marlon James's breakthrough third novel is actually not brief, at some 700 pages, nor is it particularly about seven killings, although I may have lost track in the blizzards of surging language and exploding violence. It's a sprawling and slippery mass. Its broad sections revolve around five separate specific dates in Jamaica and in New York City (December 2, 1976, etc.), populated by a babbling cacophony of a competing cast of characters like voices from the lake of fire: Jamaican gangsters and their women, CIA men, a rock critic who reads like a road never taken by Cameron Crowe, and many more. James, like Jonathan Lethem or Jonathan Franzen, bears certain sublimated rock critic impulses, but also like the Jonathans evinces a greater gift for fiction and novels. The narrative is rich with potent allusion. Much of the larger story revolves around the assassination attempt on Bob Marley that took place in December 1976, connecting it to the later epidemic of crack cocaine in New York in the '80s, and the shared fortunes that followed for Jamaica and the US. The first two sections of Brief History, nearly half the book, are dedicated to the day before and the day of the attempt on Marley's life. In terms of the in-your-face style of telling the story, probably the most obvious comparison is with William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. They both use short chapters written first-person by multiple characters, but Faulkner's book is compact and weak sister next to this, which is a hothouse of febrile voice, Jamaican patois, and homicidal fantasies even by the fragments. I got the sense that James wrote and wrote and wrote, then condensed and chopped, and then wrote and wrote and wrote some more. I wouldn't be surprised if the final version represents only a fraction of all that could have gone in. James here feels like Thomas Wolfe in the passionate throes of erupting great novels. A Brief History dwells in streams of consciousness, flowing deep into the heads of even incidental characters, but also feels as if it were written almost unconsciously, by a medium catching vibrations from the air. Reading it for the first time, I often lost the thread through its lush trails but it never really lets you go. It is usually deep inside heads or briskly moving the action along, and sometimes the edges blur. It's hallucinatory, with static bursts of writing as vivid as William Burroughs at his most fiendish, some of the scenes sticking with me still. James has done an impressive job of telling the story of Jamaica and the US, specifically from the '70s to the '90s, but the scope is tremendous historically and the ambition almost limitless. I can't wait to try this monster again.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. I think you could possibly make a reasonable argument as to why he should have whittled it down by another 200 pages but what do you cut? This ought to be short listed on all kinds of great novels lists (21st c, Jamaican, gay, black, intersection of post-colonial Third World and Cold War, etc). Book of Night Women, a fictionalized slave narrative, is also excellent.