Soon after he was awarded the Man Booker Prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, Jamaican author Marlon James was asked how he was going to spend the $70,000 prize money. He didn’t hesitate: “I’m going to buy up every William Faulkner novel in hardcover.”
It was a fitting response because A Brief History, which revisits the ghettos of 1970s Jamaica and a foiled assassination attempt on reggae legend Bob Marley, borrows much from Faulkner’s Nobel prize-winning repertoire: complex plotting, multiple and alternating voices, interior monologue, stream of consciousness and, of course, a great attention to diction and cadence.
But you needn’t be familiar with The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying to enjoy James’s book. Nor need you worry if you get lost in the book’s dense plot and the 75-odd characters that populate it, because the entertainment lies not only in what they say but the way they say it.
James, 44, left Jamaica several years ago for the US, where he teaches creative writing. But he hasn’t lost his ear for Jamaican patois, nor his ability to cast his mind back to life among the Kingston underclass where “the sun was setting but it did still hot and the air taste like fish”.
It’s this piquant use of English that lifts James’s cast of gangsters, ravers, and batty boys off the page.
“In a former British colony the idea of what is proper English becomes an obsession,” James said in a recent interview. “And it’s one of the things that runs through the book where characters keep criticising other characters’ English, even though nobody speaks a perfect English — whatever that is. It’s a great way to separate classes in Jamaica.”
As gang member Bam-Bam’s father, after a savage beating, tells his boy, “English is the best subject in school because even if you get work as a plumber nobody going give you any work if you chat bad, and chatting good is everything before you learn a trade.”
Much like Bam-Bam, James recalls his own father challenging him to “Shakespearean soliloquy competitions”. Perhaps he had those memories in mind because A Brief History is written in a way that compels you to read much of it aloud. In that sense, it reminds you of another Caribbean satire, Miguel Street, VS Naipaul’s blackly comic early novel about growing up in 1940s Trinidad.
It’s a book you imagine James knows well. After all, West Indians, and particularly Jamaicans, have an innate way with words. Where else but in the British Caribbean would you find a newspaper called The Gleaner?
In Naipaul’s Miguel Street they would, of course, dismiss James’s rendering of Caribbean patois as not proper “litritcher”. It would simply be an accurate record of how the inhabitants wryly philosophise on their lot.
“Money enough that every man in the ghetto can buy him woman a good Posturepedic mattress from Sealy,” the gang member Demus muses. But most of the time, “me want enough money to stop want money”.
James admits he does things he wouldn’t allow his students to do. And the danger with such literary braggadocio is that it risks getting a little mannered, especially over 688 pages. But by deftly alternating the voices, James pulls it off. It’s a bold ploy because you’ll either like it or hate it, especially since it presupposes another aesthetic predilection. You must like — or at least be willing to taste — Rastafarian culture.
As he has written, James listened to reggae, and would note in the corner of each page the artist he was listening to at the time. It’s no coincidence that we find a Marley or Steel Pulse lyric cropping up in snatches of monologue.
Again, James makes it work without it looking like an affectation.
Forty years ago the dub poet and songwriter Linton Kwesi Johnson pioneered the recitation of Jamaican patois in hits such as Street 66 and Inglan is a Bitch, and his collection Mi Revalueshanary Fren made him one of only three poets to be published by Penguin Modern Classics while still alive. With A Brief History of Seven Killings, James has made a “top-rankin’ ” contribution to that tradition.