A Brief History of Seven Killings
By Marlon James
688 pages, $28.95
By Ed Taylor
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
At the risk of being reductive – that 688 pages above is the first “but” among the problematic things about this novel, which is ambitious and lion-hearted but a book with issues.
While this Rashomon-style examination of Jamaica and a pivotal central public event around which the book revolves (an unacknowledged hinge point in recent Jamaican history) at times mesmerizes, at times it’s also like being cornered by the Ancient Mariner at a party and being unable to escape his obsessive monologizing.
Granted: The subject of the obsession is intriguing, and the fictive world here is attractively immersive. The story sheds much-needed light on a complicated neighbor known to most Americans as a Disneyfied vacation destination where “no problem, mon” is the mantra of all the smiling residents.
At least one face of the real Jamaica is rendered here by author James, who grew up in Kingston and now teaches at Macalester College in Minneapolis, and is a leading member of a generation of Anglo-Caribbean writers now flourishing in the United States and England. His novels “John Crow’s Devil” and “The Book of Night Women” received international praise and awards including the Dayton Literary Peace Prize (for “The Book of Night Women,” set during the Western slave era).
James’ new novel is built in five sections, the first two officially orbiting two consecutive December 1976 days, the third set in 1979, the fourth, in 1985, and the final one, in 1991. Each section is composed of a series of first-person narratives from a variety of speakers, ranging from a dead Jamaican prime minister to a Jamaican street kid named Bam-Bam to a CIA officer to an American journalist: It is a fictional (perhaps ironic in its unreality, something that should have been written that wasn’t) multipart series the latter character writes for the New Yorker that provides the book’s title.
The settings stay focused on Kingston and environs and New York City, with a brief stopover in Miami. There is a “Cast of Characters” list, to help the reader follow the narrative from voice to voice, place to place and era to era.
Implied here, among other things, is the conclusion that for ordinary Jamaicans in the worst years of the 1970s and 1980s the only solution to existentially endemic poverty and violence was escape.
Jamaica here whipsaws between America and the Soviet Union – with the U.S. unhappy at the potential ascension of then Prime Minister Michael Manley’s socialist party, and the U.S.S.R. through its Cuban proxy seeing the island as a staging ground and strategic asset – and the mercenaries used as tools by those powers, both the politicians, and the mercenary gangs the puppet-masters wrestle over: the private rivals Copenhagen City and Eight Lanes, named for their neighborhoods, and the public ones; the corrupt and sadistic police and military forces.
Trapped within this nightmarish triangle are those not rich enough to be insulated from the violence, which is the majority of the population. The current U.S. immigration crisis with desperate children fleeing unavoidable crime and violence and seeing America as a haven offers eerie resonance with at least one of this novel’s themes.
The real-life hub around which everything revolves centrifugally, or spins away from centripetally, depending on your point of view, is the actual 1976 attempted assassination of Bob Marley. This internationally worshiped musician and activist survived the attempt but then died of an odd onset of cancer at age 40 – a disease, it is hinted here, that occurred less than naturally. Marley was a figure larger than music in Jamaican and world culture, and the role he assumes here as The Singer is as the soul of Jamaica, a world spirit, and a powerful voice raging against the “Babylon” of colonizers, inequality and moral corruption both local and international, and public and private.
The five sections flow as follows: various observers report on events in Jamaica leading up to the assassination attempt, and on the attempt, and on events three years after the attempt. Then the scene shifts to New York following the expansion of Jamaican drug trade to Miami and New York, and the final section expands on the previous section.
Some characters appear and burn out in a single section, some transition through several, and four appear and link all five sections, with the final section ending with the 1991 reuniting of scattered family members first introduced in 1976.
That’s the frame and armature of the narrative, and it’s a good one.
But, the “buts”?
The book in its diligence to render “reality” may be overly enamored of texture at the expense of narrative drive and overall impact and purpose. Too often here dialogue and even whole scenes slacken and slow for the sake of atmosphere.
Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen offered some guidelines for conventional dialogue that are useful general (but not universally applicable) references: Dialogue should be brief; add to the reader’s present knowledge; eliminate routine exchanges of ordinary conversation; convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate real talk’s repetitiveness; keep the story moving forward; be revelatory to a speaker’s character, both directly and indirectly; and show relations among characters.
These directives are not always flouted here, but are in absence enough to slow down dialogue-heavy sections to the point of notice. Because here external events are only experienced through formal speakers, the pacing of events and action is at the mercy of the verbosity of the narrators’ renderings of events.
Beyond that, while the Jamaican characters feel real, the white characters feel less so, especially in terms of voice. So there are compelling patches interrupted by sections that potentially can pull the reader out of the story.
In addition, a result of some slackness and the obsessive circling of a single event is a feeling of redundancy – this intelligent, imaginative book is just too long, like a yar sailboat with lines allowed to go limp.
If the reader can tolerate doldrums, then the book can catch the imagination – or, to mix metaphors, catchafire, as Bob Marley said.
Ed Taylor is a freelance Buffalo writer, professor of literature at SUNY Buffalo State and the author of the novel “Theo.”