It was my birthday and I was with my brother and his significant other in Books-A-Million in Branson, Missouri. I was meandering about the store, doubtful I would get anything but I always methodically check each shelf just in case I see something I can’t live without. Jumping off the shelf, both for its obnoxious canary yellow binding and absolutely riveting title was Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. The name seemed familiar to me, but perhaps that is simply due to its fantastic title. A novel with a great title has a way of seeming familiar to you. By title alone I found myself hoping that the book was literary. My copy wasn’t stamped with the Man Booker Prize crest so I wasn’t sure… until I flipped the book over.
Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Winner of The American Book Award, Winner of the Ansfield-Wolf Book Award, Winner of the Minnesota Book Award, etc. ALRIGHT. I get it. The book is literary and is apparently just as good as its awesome title suggests. What is it about?
A Brief History of Seven Killings is supposedly about the assassination attempt on Bob Marley on December 3rd, 1976. Yet in actuality, that is simply the starting point for James to take his readers on a Joycian rendezvous through the world of Jamaican organized crime, the cold war, and the socio-economic political scene that existed (and still exists) in the impoverished streets of Kingston. Though the novel bases itself on a historical event, James tells it through the rumors and spoken-word history that he grew up with as a Jamaican. The novel, thus, takes the shape of spoken word, with a stream of consciousness style pervading throughout, consisting heavily of Jamaican Patois, which is based in English, but takes some getting accustomed to. There are a few core narrators, but each drops out and comes back in seemingly randomly. James succeeds brilliantly in constructing all of them, for as people go, they are nearly all despicable, at best deeply flawed, yet there exists no character who’s section you dread reading.
I was reminded most of James Joyce while reading A Brief History of Seven Killings. While Marlon James’ style is totally his own, the experience he creates is similar to Joyce’s in the best way one could hope. You are thrown into the mind of a character as they explore a place they know and the reader does not. Tough luck for the reader, because they are not telling this story to anyone but themselves. Much like it is said that Ulysses changes each time you read it (Mind you, I have not read it yet, my experience of Joyce is Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), A Brief History contains the same make-up. Each character is telling a different version of the same story. Some give more details than others. Some blatantly lie. Either way the reader is left with piecing the fragmented story together. Nobody in the book seems to be on the same side, and in many cases none of them are doing anything worth cheering for, yet you find yourself deeply invested in their well-being. It hurts when they die. And yes, most of them die. It’s in the title of the book, so that’s not a spoiler. Yet when I read the book again, a believe me, this is a must-reread, the book is going to show me things I could not have possibly picked up on the first time. It is overwhelming at the beginning. I had just as much trouble dealing with the density of this novel as I did with anything by Pynchon.
Yet A Brief History of Seven Killings is ultimately rewarding by its sheer power to absorb you into its narrative. It’s difficult to put down as it consumes a lot of your spare thinking time. I cannot think of a better book to recommend at the moment during our political mess that surrounds us at all moments. A Brief History has a large amount to say about interventionist governing, Henry Kissinger, socialism, communism, dirty politics, gender politics, and race relations. Marlon James is a force to be reckoned with as a literary writer, as his characters are not himself in a cheap disguise. They are earnest. They speak for themselves. This is a book in which a handful of characters over the span of 15 years tell a story through fractals that doesn’t add up a lot of the time for 686 pages and it not only succeeds, it kills.
While not for the faint of heart (A Brief History is the most violent novel I have read in my life), this is a novel you should be reading. I am shocked that this was not a prize winner beyond Man Booker. Make this the third book I have read this year that I am confused as to how it did not win either the Pulitzer or the National Book Award. Much like Adam Levin, Marlon James is an author I will be overjoyed to follow the career of for as long as he chooses to write.
Recommended to: Joyce fans, those looking for a politically driven novel that holds deep relevance for today’s presidential election and movements such as Black Lives Matter, and those who think the art of the stream of consciousness has been lost.
Avoid as if picking against my Mets this year in the NL East: Those who can’t handle violent books, those who can’t enjoy a book that uses heavy amounts of dialect, and those who don’t have a month to spare to read a pure triumph of a novel.