The dream didn’t leave, people just don’t know a nightmare when they right in the middle of one.
But the dead never stop talking and sometimes the living hear. This is what I wanted to say. When you’re dead speech is nothing but tangents and detours and there’s nothing to do but stray and wander awhile. Well, that’s at least what the others do. My point being that the expired learn from the expired, but that’s tricky. I could listen to myself, still claiming to anybody that would hear that I didn’t fall, I was pushed over the ba lcony at the Sunset Beach Hotel in Montego Bay. And I can’t say shut your trap, Artie Jennings, because every morning I wake up having to put my pumpkin-smashed head back together. And even as I talk now I can hear how I sounded then, can you dig it, dingledoodies? meaning that the afterlife is just not a happening scene, not a groovy shindig, Daddy-O, see those cool cats on the mat? They could never dig it, and there’s nothing to do but wait for the man that killed me, but he won’t die, he only gets older and older and trades out wives for younger and younger and breeding a whole brood of slow-witted boys and running the country down into the ground.
A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) offers up the kind of raucous, savage fun that doesn’t feel particularly literary. It’s as entertaining as an Elmore Leonard novel and as vicious as a snuff movie. It’s relentless and, whereas one of the 2013 judges blissfully described Eleanor Catton’s masterful The Luminaries as akin to “sinking into a warm bath,” James’s novel is more like being set aflame before a dousing with buckets of cold water.
It’s an assault from the first paragraph and it may well be repellent to squeamish readers. For example:
My mother run back in and start to laugh and kick my father and Funnyboy go up to her and shoot her in the face. She fall right on top of me, so when he say find the little boy they look everywhere but under my mother. Funnyboy say, Can you imagine, the little batty boy say him would suck me like some bow cat and mek me feel good if me make him live? Dutty pervert all reach out and grab me wood. Can you imagine that, he say to the men who looking ’round for me, but my mother on top of me and her fingers right by my face and me in a cage looking through her fingers and I don’t cry and Funnyboy going on and on about how he know that my father was a battyman, have to be a battyman that must be why him woman was such a whore because how else her pussy going get look after, and then he say don’t tell none o’ this to Shotta Sherrif.
This is pistol-whip street poetry, lyrical and disarming in a way not intended to glorify savagery but as a means of salvaging something from a nightmare. Truth? The voice looks beyond the act for larger meaning. As Kei Miller puts it in his excellent Guardian review, the novel “doesn’t quite sweep you up” but instead insistently urges you to piece all the shattered fragments together. That is the one potentially arduous thing about the book: it doesn’t flow without you working to plug gaps and slot irregular beats into step. There are moments of narrative discord that go perfectly with the gestalt, but that doesn’t mean you can plunge ahead without occasionally having to slow the pace. The number of different voices James employs means switching back or forward in tempo quite regularly. Once accustomed, you should have little problem changing between gears, and the collisions are not entirely problematic; they augment tension. And you have to learn to simply trust James to lead you through the carnage. This isn’t mere Dickensian density, an enormous cast deployed by deft omniscience: the voices carry the story, and they unavoidably do that unevenly. Whether or not the interruptive clash of emphasis and voice and pace works is entirely down to you, and your proclivities may kibosh your enjoyment.
The prologue (part of which forms that opening excerpt at the top) is narrated by a violently murdered ghost, and it’s an apt induction into the ensuing mayhem, which takes in a terrifying 70s Jamaica as CIA agents infiltrate, a gun influx proliferates and much political mayhem percolates. We conceive the unraveling tale via various viewpoints, not just locals — James can do a very authentic coddled hipster U.S. rock journo yap as well as a trigger-happy Jamaican maniac. When it comes to locals, they aren’t simply born here, they ‘drop out’ of their mothers, and by the time they hit the ground they tend to know how to use a gun. The novel’s numerous (75!) voices barge into earshot and babble feverish, often horribly funny imprecations, or embittered apothegms, or plain old terror, and often appear reinterpreted by other voices, part of their story, recognizable but reimagined slightly. Murder and sadism are commonplace, things to be avoided if you’re lucky, your chances slim.
The novel leads into an assassination attempt on Bob Marley, and that iconic figure, both in and out of the culture, both national avatar and inevitable worldwide “white bwoi” property, is a means of discussing the identity of a country at a turbulent turning point and an occasion around which a pervasion of voices and a mass consciousness can be evoked. Around Marley scurry and sneak all the other players, marshaled by James across his hard-boiled version of, amongst other places, Kingston Town, and they ask questions of you, the reader, and of themselves with guns and spectral voices, and the answers are often corpses and further questions, and the questions and the death’s-edge energized commentary keep coming, most of these characters locked into their fate by necessity and murderous, paranoid self-preservation.
The reading of this polyphonic, fragmented novel feels a little like being trapped in some wavering Jamaica-psyche frequency, an enturbulated transmission hazing in and out of clarity and prominence and differing interior viewpoints before jumping into another, measured and persuasive and urgent in expectation of being cut off by the next. James gives everyone just enough to time to fire off their next consideration, each interpolation peppered with carefully administered doses of political commentary as though ad hoc, and in doing so inconspicuously (well, on the whole — it’s occasionally rough-sewn exposition and preachy, but it’s usually too busy hurtling towards the next flashpoint to feel dryly didactic) gets his own broad themes across.
The following excerpts should give you an idea of the different cadences and intensities that guide us (or drag us) through this tale of 70s-90s Jamaica (and New York) as an unmitigated hell fought over by competing forces, rival gangs stalking a chaotic battleground ready for some reckoning that always feel partly underway, imminent or surely no worse than the norm.
In the Eight Lanes and in Copenhagen City all you can do is watch. Sweet-talking voice on the radio say that crime and violence are taking over the country and if change ever going to come then we will have to wait and see, but all we can do down here in the Eight Lanes is see and wait. And I see shit water run free down the street and I wait. And I see my mother take two men for twenty dollars each and one more who pay twenty-five to stay in instead of pull out and I wait. And I watch my father get so sick and tired of her that he beat her like a dog. And I see the zinc on the roof rust itself brown, and then the rain batter hole into it like foreign cheese, and I see seven people in one room and one pregnant and people fucking anyway because people so poor that they can’t even afford shame and I wait. And the little room get smaller and smaller and more sisterbrothercousin come from country, the city getting bigger and bigger and there be no place to rub-a-dub or cut you shit and no chicken back to curry and even when there is it still cost too much money and that little girl get stab because they know she get lunch money every Tuesday and the boys like me getting older and not in school very regular and can’t read Dick and Jane but know Coca-Cola, and want to go to a studio and cut a tune and sing hit songs and ride the riddim out of the ghetto but Copenhagen City and the Eight Lanes both too big and every time you reach the edge, the edge move ahead of you like a shadow until the whole world is a ghetto, and you wait.
Lady Pink open from nine in the morning and only have two things on the jukebox, some nice ska from the sixties and sweet rocksteady, like the Heptones and Ken Lazarus. None of that Rasta reggae fuckery. If I come across one more pussyhole who won’t comb their hair and recognize Jesus as their lord and saviour I might send that little fucker to hell. Take that joke and bank it. The wall is too red for pink and too pink for purple and have gold record all over, which the owner himself spray-paint. Lerlette, the skinny girl, is up onstage, she the one who always want to dance to Ma Baker. One year we provide security when Boney M. come to Jamaica and nobody knew that three woman and one man from the Caribbean could all look like such sodomite. Every time the song end with the chorus, she knew how to die! Lerlette split right down on the ground and hold up her two hands in gun pose like she’s Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come. Girl must be putting her pum-pum through all kinda distress. Weeper used to fuck her too.
I don’t remember how much man fall because of me and I don’t care too much either, but that one. Is one thing when you kill a man and he just dead. Is another thing when he too close when you shoot him and he grab you and you see him the way he looking at you, him eye frighten as fuck because death is the scariest monster, scarier than anything you dream up as a pickney and you can feel it like a demon, swallowing you slow, big mouth swallowing your toes first and the toes go cold, then the feet and the feet go cold, then the knee, then the thigh, then the waist, and the little boy grab me shirt and bawling no, no, no, it coming up on me, no, no, no . . . and he grab you hard, harder than he ever gripped anything because maybe if he put all the strength, all the will in just those ten fingers on a living thing, maybe he can hold on to life. And he inhale like he sucking in the world and scared of breathing out more than anything because if he exhale he might breathe out all the life he got left. Shoot the boy again, Josey Wales say, but I couldn’t do nothing but look. Josey walk over to me, put the gun to him forehead and pow.
As those visitations from momentarily ruminative voices suggests, A Brief History of Seven Killings often feels like an apocalyptic free-for-all, Cormac McCarthy at his bloodiest relocated, imbued with the manic spirit of films such as City of God. Again: voice is everything. These are not just inner-monologues; these are not people with the same kind of inner and outer lives we’re used to from fictional characters, full of unspent bile and curdling resentments. These people act or wither away — largely, to think is to act, and the environment in which they find themselves necessarily demands certain types of act. They haven’t been bred to deliberate and deal in external morality and so intransigently heed their own cobbled-together philosophies.
James’s third novel works as a dovetailing snapshot of a period through its complicit pawns, but the novel’s coherence isn’t reliant on the vacillating appearances of regular voices, Bob Marley, a burgeoning CIA presence, or environmental hermetics. Through the periodic and interleaved reintroductions of an often deranged ensemble, one voice in particular — that of Nina Burgess — is prominent. She’s desperate to meet Marley for a second time, and whilst loitering outside his base is plucked off the streets by leering cops, a nasty post-curfew fate seemingly inevitable. She’s dangerously willful in a time and place that at best affords third-class status to women, who are meant for male amusement or debauched servility. As we follow her through the novel we expect her story to be cut short, and when it isn’t we urge her on.
Police and their police laugh.
—No bus coming pass ’ere for the rest of the night. You going walk?
—With one ’eel?
—H’in a curfew? You know what sort of man h’on the street with you this time of night, lady? You the only woman who don’t watch news come nighttime? Scum of the earth deh ’pon the street. Which one of them word you can’t spell?
—I was just—
—You was just being a damn idiot. Better you did stay at the work till morning when bus start run. Get in the car.
—I don’t need—
—Lady, go inna the bloodcloth car. You breaking the law. Either you going ’ome or you going to lockup.
I get in the car. Two policemen get in the front, leaving the two cars and four policemen behind. At the stoplight a right turn takes you to Havendale. They turn left.
—Shortcut, they both say.
Nina survives by evolving, and only by moving between continents and identities (and thusly voices, neatly exemplifying the trapped nature of those clinging to an authentic doom) does she endure. Without her the book might be an impressively hellish curio, a memorable failure.
The switchback, counterpoint, clashing momentum finally reaches a culmination, at which point you realize that the interiority of the book is the thing that has led you there, not the story. The story is the characters, the plot the thing strung across them. It’s subsequently hard to précis this work, and seems redundant to put too much on events unfolding sequentially. A few days after I finished the book I picked it up and riffled, stopping randomly. In doing so, I realized that I didn’t want to read the book again, because I didn’t have to. That’s not where the real strength of A Brief History of Seven Killings lies, as with Joyce and Faulkner. It’s in the apprehension of an entire world through every individual element. Not just formed by each element, but conveyed wholly through it. At least, that’s the effect. Every voice here is the same voice, and every one different, and what Marlon James has captured is that ineffable thing that you rarely encounter. It’s the same thing you find when you read any random sentence of an Alice Munro story or any Wallace Stevens line, see any one brief moment of any Kubrick or Scorsese film, hear a stray snatch of Hendrix. A completely recognizable and uniquely rendered world cut through with its own entirety at every moment.
That A Brief History of Seven Killings has won the Man Booker Prize is excellent news for the award and for literature in general. This year’s winner is a crime novel. Will such recognition soften generic borders and preclude presumptions about this “type” of book? Whatever this book is, it’s all those things that mark out the best of literature: thought provoking, surprising, multi-faceted, singular, vivid. It fulfils the surely primary objective of any big piece of fiction: it captures the world via its own. That this is a volatile, often nasty (wasn’t plenty of Faulkner, to whom James has reasonably been compared?), entertainment may put many off, but those factors are irrelevant when we come to weigh its merits as a “Bookerish” novel. Ideas about what that means may hereon be ever so slightly modified.