Creole to Queen’s English
A Brief History of Seven Killings
By Marlon James
Riverhead Books, 2014
Marlon James is the latest literary phenomenon to come out of the Caribbean, with his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, having been awarded the 2015 Man Booker Prize (only the second Caribbean work to receive the honor, the first being V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State).
James was born, raised, and educated in Jamaica before moving to the US to further his education, and later, to teach at Macalaster College in Minnesota. Since his Booker win, James has been vocal about his own life and experience coming to America, where he was able to be open about his sexuality as a gay man, express his personality more freely, and gradually reinvent himself into the person he is today. There are many shades of James’ own journey—to and from America and changing himself between the places—in A Brief History of Seven Killings, but the novel is far from autobiographical. It is a thoroughly researched book, drawing heavily from real events, and in particular: the assassination of Bob Marley in 1976, when the novel opens.
We begin in Jamaica, and the reggae superstar (simply referred to here as “the Singer”) is a real, flesh-and-blood Messiah. The country is rife with gang violence and election season turbulence between the incumbent People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), with both the criminal and political arenas bleeding into one another. At the height of this tension, Bob Marley’s Smile Jamaica peace concert is announced, a nominal attempt to unify the country under Marley’s music. But the concert is widely understood to be PNP propaganda, hinged upon Marley’s celebrity. At the same time, Marley is identified as a player in a failed horse-race-fixing con that draws the ire of the crooks behind the scheme.
Marley becomes more than just a Singer, having made friends and enemies in both the political and criminal underworlds. This, both in the novel and historically, sets the stage for the fateful attempt made on Marley’s life.
Primarily, A Brief History of Seven Killings follows the lives of the ill-fated gunmen who attempted the assassination, the don who orchestrated the hit, and one of Marley’s former lovers, who gets caught in the middle. The story spans almost two decades, chronicles the lives of seventy plus characters and takes place throughout both Jamaica and New York City, so that there are many side- and sub-stories throughout the bigger narratives. Gangs, the CIA, media companies, political parties, revolutionaries and Joe Public all feature here.
A valid criticism of James’ novel is that it is too long. James writes in his acknowledgements that the big problem writing A Brief History was that he didn’t have a cohesive narrative, but rather, a disjointed collection of characters and sketches. It later dawned on him that his bits of unfinished, unconnected writings were actually a complete novel all along, and so, A Brief History of Seven Killings was born. This fragmentation means that it can be difficult to keep tabs on everything, with the weaker arcs feeling entirely tacked on but, as James himself has written, it is the voices (and not the plot) that carry the novel. And there are many voices.
In an interview for the Guardian, James observed that while there are many stories about Jamaican crime and ghettos, the Jamaican middle class never gets written about. Nina Burgess is his response. In the novel, she is Marley’s former lover who dreams of calling in a favor to secure a visa and ticket out of Jamaica. She is also unquestionably James’ most interesting and compelling character. And though James takes up the mantle of writing about Jamaica beyond the ghettos, he doesn’t miss the opportunity to explore the more commonly portrayed, but perennially fascinating, world of the underclasses: the urchins, criminals and junkies. The voices of these characters range from poetic to potty-mouthed, contemplative to fast-talking, and from Creole to Queen’s English. It’s clear that James’ richly diverse voices paved the way for much of A Brief History’s critical success.
The most dynamic of these voices often mesh and clash to make delicious, probing scenes. James’ dialogue is unattributed, perfectly suited to his punchy back-and-forth style, and that back-and-forth is often between characters from opposite ends of the socioeconomic, racial and geographic spectra. This is a conversation between a Jamaican caregiver living in the Bronx and the man she has been employed to look after, a white, elderly Manhattanite. She begins:
—You know it’s not safe to be on this train heading to this place this time of day, right?
—What are you talking about? It’s barely five in the afternoon.
—It’s five in afternoon in the Bronx.
—You own a TV?
—People decide on what they should fear in this world, Dorcas.
—People who live on Park Avenue can decide if they feel like having some fear today. For the rest of us it means don’t go to the Bronx after five.
—So why are we going?
—I’m not going. You’re going. I’m just following you.
—Ha, you’re the one who told me about the jerk chicken on Boston Road, and I told you I haven’t had Jamaican food since 1973.
—And so it goes, every white man must have his own Heart of Darkness experience for himself.
—I don’t know what I should be more impressed by, the fact that you’re so well read, or the fact that the farther we get from Fifth Avenue, the bolder your tone gets with me.
—What next, Mr. Ken? You speak English so well? Americans don’t read books in high school? As for tone, since my hiring was a mistake, I think you can rest assured that you won’t be seeing me or anybody from the agency tomorrow.
—Wow, that would be a mistake of disastrous proportions, he said, not to me but to whatever he was looking at out the window. I survey the car to see if anybody was looking at that exchange.
A novel about Jamaica—or more specifically, a novel about leaving Jamaica—is necessarily about race, class and the inherited colonial legacy, either subtly or overtly (as it is in A Brief History).
It is another entry into a tradition of Anglophone Caribbean stories that begin in the third world and end up in America or England, like Naipaul’s The Mimic Men, Edwidge Danticat’s Breath Eyes Memory and Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy. This novel, like those before it, explores a familiar narrative that explains, contrives or otherwise justifies its characters’ migration to the First World.
There have always been people enamored with the Third World, and in the Caribbean’s case, there exists the false image of an idyllic paradise in those people’s minds. Jamaica in particular is imagined to be a laid back, ganja-laden Bob Marley concert hall. This novel, in many ways, is James’ retort. To the white or foreign passers-by in his novel searching for “the true Jamaica,” and perhaps even to the modern reader who has begun to feel restless in the First World, James takes an unambiguously harsh stance: Jamaica isn’t a good place. Not, at least, for those who haven’t broken into rock-stardom or big politics.
In a New York Prison (Rikers), one of the novel’s many Jamaican gang members has this to say to American journalist Alex Pierce:
But seriously, Alex, prison library serious to fuck. Me go to plenty library in Jamaica and not one have book like the number of books me see in Rikers. One of them is this book Middle Passage. Some coolie write it, V. S. Naipaul. Brethren, the man say West Kingston is a place so fucking bad that you can’t even take a picture of it, because the beauty of the photographic process lies to you as to just how ugly it really is. Oh you read it? Trust me, even him have it wrong. The beauty of how him write that sentence still lie to you as to how ugly it is. It so ugly it shouldn’t produce no pretty sentence, ever.
The characters and the action segments have a loud, Hollywood flare about them, but James’ portrayal of his homeland is rooted in realism—not patronizing idealism or gratuitous poverty-porn. The characters’ attachment to Marley, really, is an attachment to Jamaica—be it begrudging, starry-eyed, or just because there wasn’t anything else.
He is far more of a god or an idea than a person. He is scarcely referred to by name, never narrates a segment of the book and barely features in the novel as an actual character at all. The result is that A Brief History’s reflections on Marley never read like a biography, but rather, a gospel:
No matter how many times your mother wrapped it in gauze and sprinkled it with Gold Bond medicated powder your toe was never going to heal.
And now something new is blowing. Three white men have knocked on your door. Five years before the first warned you not to leave. Deep into 1978, the third—they always knew where to find you—warned you not to come back. The second came bearing gifts. You can’t even remember him now, but he came like one of the three Wise Men, with a box wrapped like Christmas. You opened it and jumped—somebody knew that every man in the ghetto wished he was The Man That Shot Liberty Valance. Brown boots, snakeskin, flirting with red; somebody knew you loved boots almost as much as you loved brown leather pants.
James’ celebrity as the winner of the Man Booker prize, perhaps, precedes him. Many readers might not have read his previous novel (I hadn’t), or even known who he was. But now they’re reading A Brief History of Seven Killings, and there’s a hefty 704 pages to be read. But even if you’re coming in clean, you’ll get to know James quite a bit by the time you’re through; in a book narrated by 10 distinct characters and featuring more than 70 others, the most prominent voice belongs to James himself. And though the tongues might change, much of the sentiment seems to be the stuff of James’ own heart, put through the filter of his creations.
The tagline, “I knew I had to leave my home country — whether in a coffin or on a plane,” of his widely circulated New York Times article “From Jamaica to Minnesota to Myself” reflects James’ own sentiments to Jamaica, but it is also a loose paraphrasing of his creation, Nina Burgess, who said, “sometimes the only way forward is through. When I landed in Montego Bay I knew that whether on a plane or in a box, I was going to leave this place.”
This is one of the biggest strengths and flaws of A Brief History: it is culturally authentic, honest and incisive, almost to the point of transparency. And though his voice might change from character to character, often spectacularly, one is always aware of James the writer, the expat, the gay man. In fact, James has a stand-in for each of those identities in Nina Burgess, the America-bound envoy of the middle class; Weeper, the repressed, gay Jamaican who can finally open up after coming to New York, and Alex Pierce, the sharp-tongued journalist who devotes himself to writing about Jamaica and Bob Marley.
Part of the transparency is that James has such a keen eye and deft hand, and so, many of his characters share their author’s wit. But perhaps more significant is that James deliberately created his characters as half-caricatures. Some of their names—Ras Trent (whose namesake is the subject of a Lonely Island sketch), Josey Wales (the protagonist of the eponymous Clint Eastwood film), Buntin-Banton (almost certainly taken from Jamaican reggae and dancehall musician Buju Banton) and Tony Pavarotti (Pavarotti is a tenor, but the joke is well taken)—are constant reminders that we are reading the novel A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.
James’ dabbling with metafiction appear as early as the first chapter, in which one character reflects on Bob Marley saying, “that’s what happens when you personify hopes and dreams in one person. He becomes nothing more than a literary device,” which, of course, is the actual basis of the novel. And later, Barry Diflorio, an American CIA agent living in Jamaica, says to himself that, “Somewhere, someone is writing a spoof of a spy novel and I’m the idiot at the bar trying to be James Bond.” And while A Brief History of Seven Killings is not exactly a spoof of a spy novel, Barry Diflorio still reminds us that he is indeed fictional.
This purposeful self-awareness allows James to do what he does best: big, dynamic personalities clashing in tense, can’t-put-it-down scenes. His cast has license to be loud, didactic or borderline-cartoonish because we know that they are, ultimately, just characters.
In the following segment Alex Pierce, who is writing a piece (to be titled “A Brief History of Seven Killings”) on a gang-related massacre at a New York crack house, is being held by a member of one of the implicated gangs. The gangster, a Jamaican man, is trying to get Pierce to modify the article to protect his organization. He starts:
—This probably too big for you. One day somebody going need to write a book ’bout it.
—You go back to writing your Brief History of Seven Killings.
I almost say thank you but it hits me just as quick that I would be thanking the man for not killing, but merely extorting me. I’m so fucking tired of sitting on this stool like I’m the school dunce but I don’t get up. Doesn’t matter anyway. I’m about to ask if by writing this shit does it mean I may never get the pleasure of seeing him again, but remember that Jamaicans rarely get sarcasm and fuck knows this is not one of those situations where you want them to misinterpret it as downright hostility. Better to just not think of any of this shit—a day this surreal couldn’t have happened anyway. Ren-Dog comes back in and they stand not too far from me mumbling some shit I guess must be kept secret.
—One more thing, white boy.
He turns around. His hand. A gun. Silencer. His hand. A gun silencer. His—
—NOOOOOO! Holy fucking shit! Holy fucking shit! Oh my God. Holy fu— Holy fuck.
—Yes one more thing.
—You fucking shot me! You motherfucking shot me!
Blood is fucking spurting from my fucking foot like I was just fucking crucified. I grab my foot and know I’m screaming but don’t know that I’m off the stool and rolling around on the floor until Eubie grabs me and sticks the gun in my neck.
—Shut the fuck up. Shut the fuck, pussyhole, Ren-Dog says and grabs my hair.
—You fucking shot me! He fucking shot me.
—And the sky blue and water wet.
—Oh my fucking God. Oh God.
—You know it’s funny. Nobody ever says anything original after getting shot. It’s almost like everybody read a guidebook just in case.
The mention of Alex Pierce writing “A Brief History of Seven Killings” is the equivalent of James winking at the camera. Jamaicans not getting sarcasm is another one of those instances of James talking through his creations (James later affirmed this observation in an interview for Vogue). And when the gangster reflects on the originality of Pierce’s dialogue after being shot, one can hear James the Writer justifying his own authorial choices. Yet, none of this self-awareness detracts from the impact of the scene. Arguably, it gives it even more punch.
A Brief History is an insightful, linguistically robust and complex work, with as much fast-talking, suspense and espionage as there is literary prize fodder. If James’ defiant claim that his book would feature the middle class spooked some readers into thinking that it would be dry—it won’t be. This book has killings—and how.
Brandon Mc Ivor is a Trinidadian writer living in Ehime, Japan. His work has appeared in the Caribbean Writer, Buffalo Almanack, the Corner Club Press, Existere and elsewhere.