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You had me at: Marlon James' 'A Brief History of Seven Killings'

January 11, 2016


A column at LCB about the first impression a book makes:

The opening lines of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) bring to mind William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) or Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Pàramo (1955). Faulkner’s oft-mentioned novel is especially apt considering James’ own acknowledgements mention it. Anyway the novel begins:


Listen.

            Dead people never stop talking. Maybe because death is not death at all, just a detention after school. You know where you’re coming from and you’re always returning from it. You know where you’re going though you never seem to get there and you’re just dead. Dead. It sounds final but it’s a word missing an ing. You come across men longer dead than you, walking all the time though heading nowhere and you listen to them howl and hiss because we’re all spirits or we think we are all spirits but we’re all just dead. Spirits that slip inside other spirits. (1)

These lines begin a novel about Jamaica’s past, specifically the era of political turmoil and street violence that served as a backdrop for the iconic life of the island’s most famous son, Bob Marley. However, they also serve as a metaphor for what books do. In pages readers cross paths with the dead, and James’ project aims to resurrect a Jamaica full of even more breadth and depth than one Singer’s life. The deeper into Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings I read, the more the book’s style and structure reminds me of the project Denis Johnson undertook in his novel Tree of Smoke.

Denis Johnson. 
In his 2007 novel, Johnson maps US interference in the South Pacific during the middle of the twentieth century. Rooting most of these voices in the shared tragedy of the Vietnam War, Johnson reveals the fleeting and ethereal nature with which an outsider knows a foreign country and its people. The perspectives in James’ novel accomplish something similar via the voices of Barry Diflorio, a CIA station chief, and Alex Pierce, a journalist for Rolling Stone. James, too, surrounds the views of these foreigners with the viewpoints of native Jamaicans, presenting world views that cross paths and fit inside one another. Some look towards Washington. Others look towards Cuba. Some see only Kingston. The world shrinks and expands from chapter to chapter.

In Johnson’s Tree of Smoke the outsider’s efforts to understand the other appear largely impossible. One of the final images in the novel is of a US operative hiking through the wilds of a foreign land. He comes across a cave. The size of which is more like a tunnel. He crawls through it—head first, no less, as if passing through a birth canal. The scene speaks to his foreign-born desperation to merge with the native dirt. To do so would render him in the perfect camouflage for his profession. It would also be a way to shed his American-ness and become the something else.  

I am only a third of the way through A Brief History of Seven Killings’ some six hundred pages, but, so far, something similar appears to be occurring with the American characters of Diflorio and Pierce. Moreover, there are also Jamaican born characters looking to escape the island. Of course, these paths root themselves in history. The novel uses the watershed moment of Bob Marley’s Kingston peace concert as a method of excavating the late years of colonialism’s classic structures and the cloak and dagger routines of the Cold War.

The center of events that is so far absent from Marlon James' novel. 
To undertake works with such ambition as both James and Johnson requires knowing a country and region enough to both center and dissolve it in the mind of the reader. James knows what his readers anticipate in a novel about Jamaica; hence, he refers to Bob Marley mostly as The Singer, drawing attention to how the man is a symbol that neither foreigners nor Jamaicans can truly understand. And then, pulling back the Rasta’s pop culture tam, James reveals a Jamaica full of other voices and other lives.

From the perspective of Josey Wales, a Kingston gangster:

Luis Hernàn Rodrigo de las Casas. Doctor Love. Two month ago in Barbados a Cubana plane take off from Sewell Airport heading for Jamaica. Twelve minutes and eighteen thousand feet later two bomb explode. Plane crash killing everybody including the entire Cuban fencing team and five people from North Korea. There are things that Doctor Love learn from the CIA ever since he join the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organization, another one of those group that seem to form every month to get rid of Castro. Give the Doctor this, he was the first man not to arch an eyebrow when he realize that I know all this shit. Louis Johnson still don’t really believe I can read, which might be why he keep showing me grocery list upside down and saying it’s a classified document. Anyway, Doctor Love learn a lot of things from The School of the Americas, one was to blow things to kingdom come. And then he start teaching it. He said he wasn’t even in Barbados when the Cubana blow up, but here. And now he back again, probably because somebody in Colombia need an extra set of eye in Jamaica today. (168-9)

The magic in Marlon James’ words is the melody of all those eyes.


Bryan Harvey tweets about books, sports, and film @LawnChairBoys.

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