A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA
IF it no go so, it near go so.”
In other words, the lie, the exaggeration, and the rumor have a way of completing a tale that tends not to be so far from the truth itself.
That’s the Jamaican proverb that launches Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead Books, 2014), a raw, brutally comic novel that is ostensibly about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in December 1976.
Two days before the Smile Jamaica concert, unknown gunmen burst into Marley’s Kingston home, firing on the singer, his wife, manager, and bandmates. Marley’s wife and manager sustained serious injuries to the skull and spine, respectively, while Marley survived lesser wounds to his arms. Despite his injuries, he went on to play the massive free concert, only cementing his legend as an artist who triumphed over death.
The book’s ambitions are much larger than Marley’s story itself. Its 700-odd pages recreate an era, the 1970s and ’80s in Kingston, as gang violence, a rising international cocaine trade, Cold War CIA espionage, Communist Cuban infiltration, and the Rastafarian countercultural revolt prod and puncture whatever dreams of unity are still held by a newly postindependence Jamaican society.
Winner of the 2015 British Man Booker Prize, A Brief History of Seven Killings continues to figure in literary news on both sides of the Atlantic, nearly three years after its initial publication. (HBO optioned the book for a series in 2015, though James said the project is now in the hands of an as yet unnamed streaming service.) Much of the book’s allure to readers lies in its jagged symphony of 15 first-person voices that range from a teenage hitman to a suburban dad CIA agent, along with a Rolling Stone journalist, multiple gang leaders, an unemployed suburban receptionist, and even the talking ghost of a murdered Jamaican politician. The only character in the book who doesn’t speak is Marley himself. His name never once appears in the text. Other characters refer to him as “The Singer,” a strategic word choice that keeps the reader from importing their own associations with Marley onto the narrative.
Ironically, James’ original draft of the novel was neither long nor about Marley. “I was writing these series of novellas. I had 300 pages written. Bob Marley wasn’t even a figure in these stories. I have this theory that your subconscious is writing the book even when you don’t think you are,” James said. “The hardest part for me to realize was that I had a story. I thought at the time I was going to write my shortest novel.”
Born in Jamaica in 1970, James grew up in the shadow of this chaotic era in Jamaica’s history. He’s a self-described nerd who grew up listening to The Cure and The Pet Shop Boys in middle-class Portmore, a pleasant suburb of Kingston. But as A Brief History showcases, he was evidently listening to the voices of his country’s personalities as well. The book’s prose, which is a series of ecstatic, patois-heavy monologues, evinces a familiarity with the speech patterns of wary gangsters, religious preachers, edgy American tourists, and Latin American operatives.
On Wednesday, May 10, James will read from A Brief History of Seven Killings at the Lensic Performing Arts Center as part of the Lannan Foundation’s author series. Aside from his reading, James will also be interviewed by Russell Banks, an American novelist (The Sweet Hereafter, Continental Drift) who has written frequently about Jamaica. For much of his professional life as a writer, Banks has lived on and off in Jamaica, and was in Kingston during the Marley shootings and Smile Jamaica concert.
James left Jamaica and moved to Minnesota in 2007, after the publication of his first novel, John Crow’s Devil (Akashic Books, 2005). He took up a post as a creative writing professor at Macalester College, where he has remained since. For the forty-six-year-old author,
A Brief History is an unexpected success of a third novel. While many critics have made note of its shockingly violent scenes, James is quick to remind everybody else that the murders and beatings meted out by many of the book’s characters are in fact quite normal to their circumstances. The violence isn’t anything particularly psychopathic, but a social norm to which many of Jamaica’s poor must adhere if they are to survive or protect their families from further harm.
As James reveals, what all this violence produces is not necessarily chaos but a tightly scripted regime of anxiety that rules over Jamaican society more ruthlessly than any government. “It’s not the actual crime that makes me want to leave, it’s the possibility that it can happen any time, any second now, even in the next minute. That it might never happen at all, but I’ll think it will happen any second now for the next ten years,” muses Nina Burgess, an ex-lover of Marley’s, while waiting in vain for the singer to appear on the veranda of his Kingston mansion. “Even if it never comes, the point is I’ll be waiting for it and the wait is just as bad because you can’t do anything else in Jamaica but wait for something to happen to you. This applies to good stuff too. It never happens. All you have is the waiting for it.”
James is quick to remind people that the murders and beatings meted out by many of the book’s characters are in fact quite normal to their circumstances. The violence isn’t anything particularly psychopathic, but a social norm to which many of Jamaica’s poor must adhere.
But even for the most jaded Jamaicans, Marley’s shooting crossed a line. It suggested the nefarious influence of foreign operatives out to destabilize a newly independent country, James said. “Most people in Jamaica at the time did the adding up. They asked where did these guns [used in the shooting] come from, since none of these people can afford any.” A Brief History doesn’t answer that question directly. But through the voices of American CIA agents, Communist Cuban infiltrators, and fixers for Colombian drug lords, the book reveals there was no shortage of international agents working to deliver cocaine and high-powered arms to teenage Jamaican gangsters, all for reasons as opaque as they are conflicting.
James does this all without resorting to expository prose or even the third-person, instead trusting on his Greek chorus of characters to deliver the story’s goods. “Except for maybe [the character] Josey Wales, none of these people in the book realize the bigger enormity of what they’re doing,” James said. “On some level, the book is about how politics ends up shaping the lives of everyday people.”
It would be inappropriate to refer to the book as historical fiction, as most of the book’s characters are entirely fictionalized. James specializes in exuberantly human characters who delight and disappoint the reader at every turn. There’s Weeper, the closeted gay coming to terms with his sexuality between contract murders. He does business with Dr. Love, a Cuban exile who seems bent on playing his CIA contacts against South American narcos, all while gleefully teaching his teen charges to blow up cars with C-4.
That sort of imagination — by turns apocalyptic, brooding, and acridly sarcastic — will serve him well in his next literary endeavor — a Game of
Thrones-like quasi-historical epic set in Africa around the end of the first millennium. “I can’t say too much about it. But one thing is important to know about it,” James said. “It’s not fantasy. It’s real life.”