Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Marlon James, _A Brief History of Seven Killings_

BOOKER WINNER FOR 2015. The title is a puzzler, though.

Puzzle number one: At 686 pages, the novel is not what most would call brief. However--given its task of exploring the paths that led up to and the paths that led away from the failed assassination attempt on Bob Marley in December 1976, paths that wind around not only Marley himself, but also Cold War politics, Jamaican politics, Kingston gang lords, and the Jamaican diaspora--one could say that the book is shorter than it could have been. So maybe "brief" works.

Puzzle number two: There are way more than seven killings here. I think the title refers to how the men involved in the assassination attempt--for the most part, bit players in the Jamaican underworld, organized by an ambitious gang enforcer in liaison with the CIA--come to their own violent ends. But the novel's title is also the title of can article that one of the characters, an American journalist, is working on near the novel's end, an investigation of a 1985 massacre at a NYC crack house.  (The  massacre was the bloody work of that same ambitious gang enforcer, now a don and a drug kingpin,  described shot-by-shot for us a few pages before.) So it might be these seven, or those seven. Or some other seven. A lot of people get killed in this novel.

Puzzlement over the title aside, though, this is a fine book. I will have to follow suit with most of the reviewers and trot out the word "epic." The book's focus is on one particular dramatic moment, but the recreation of that moment is so dense, the contributing causes and succeeding effects so various, that I did feel that I was getting a full history of a time and place.  But after all, the Iliad is only about those few weeks Achilles was sulking in his tent; it's Homer's astonishing powers that make us feel we are getting the whole history.

James's great power is in his command of voices--most of them but not all Jamaican, most of them but not all male, some literate and educated but many not. The novel is woven out of this spectrum of testimonies, without any master-narrative to guide us (only a handy cast list at the front), so James has to make each voice count as well as make each convincing, and he succeeds.

Given that the novel involves a crucial episode in Marley's life, I was expecting it to be a bit more about him than it is--always referred to as "the Singer," he is glimpsed only briefly in the book.

I thought too there would be more about reggae in general than there is; a few of the characters (especially the American journalist) are devotees of the music, but none is a musician, and we do not even have cameo  appearances by the likes of, say, Lee Perry.

In compensation, I read A Brief History oF Seven Killings alongside a playlist consisting of (of course) Marley and the Wailers, Burning Spear, Culture's Two Sevens Clash, Max Romeo's War Ina Babylon, and the Arkology box set. That musical infusion deepened the novel for me, but I found the novel was also deepening the music for me, starkly lighting the social and political chaos that had created the apocalyptic mood that so eerily counterpoints the bouncy rhythms of late seventies reggae.

So--my humble suggestion: include a download code with future copies of the novel.

By the way, if you have the 12-inch mix of Culture's "Natty Dread Taking Over," at 4:38-39 it sounds like the singer is saying "Marlon James." No kidding.

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