Something new is blowing. For author Marlon James, it is the prefix “Man Booker winning“; for readers of his latest novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, it is a mystifying work they won’t quite know how to categorize: historical fiction which understands that to revive history is not to bring it back to life, so to speak, but instead to bridge “the deadlands” with the here and now. So as to avoid the dread that is native to this exercise from becoming a burden, James has Sir Arthur George Jennings, a politician not without dirt on his hands, speak on the dead’s behalf—and death’s itself, ultimately—by unsettling proxy. And deploying a politician, any politician, as sole arbiter of the beyond, allowing the reader no alternative but to take him at his word, is a remarkably brilliant construction on James’ part. For A Brief History of Seven Killings is also, unavoidably, a political novel.
The narrative tracts 1970’s Jamaica, and the precarious vyings between the JLP (Jamaica Labour Party) and PNP (People’s National Party) for government, through to 1990’s New York, Miami, and the crack wars which further sewed Jamaica and the United States’ criminal netherworlds, as well as cultures. James makes both implicit and explicit the ways in which many if not all of these actors—from Copenhagen dons Papa-Lo and Josey Wales, to CIA field officers, to untold numbers of youth drawn toward gang involvement for lack of visible recourse—have fallen into these roles in direct concert with their increasingly stormy politosphere, the violences of which have struck trip lines in the black Jamaican sand.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is, in the political and historical sense, a novel of refrains. “Ism and schism”; “something new is blowing”; “wait and see”, versus “see and wait”—a polarity James has several of his characters illuminate, and each distressingly in keeping with Jennings’ chthonic airs. (“Listen. Living people wait and see because they fool themselves that they have time. Dead people see and wait.“) These phrases recur throughout the book’s almost seven hundred pages, and each effectively assumes the task of rainmaker for future repeats of their respective dilemmas. This is not to say these characters want more schism, or spend no time and energy on hope (the One Love Peace Concert, for example, which catalyzes the direction many of their lives take), but that they have learned to plan for rough skies.
James’ concern with language, however, goes beyond its mere minting for the sake of cultural and political prognosis. No matter what station they presently man in terms of class or profession (or nationality, as some percentage, including Rolling Stone reporter Alex Pierce and CIA chief Barry Diflorio, are American), none are shy about combing “bad speech” from one another’s diversiform ‘patois’ on the basis of pronunciation, stress, and—speaking generally—a worrisome colonial aftertaste still clinging to the nation’s air. Furthermore, the five sections into which the novel is divided enforce in a literal sense the framing power that words have, and James grants Bob Marley (referenced only as “The Singer”) a key share of this by naming these sections after his songs.
Of the novel’s many dead, Marley is the one ‘character’ that Sir Arthur George Jennings directly addresses in moments outside the immediate lead up to and aftermath of death. Though alive for most of the novel, Marley is, in effect, a shadow from its beginning. His name is never once incited, nor even flirted with, almost as if James has punctured the hole in his own universe that the name would otherwise fill. Marley is neither one of the novel’s handful of narrators (all of whom narrate from the first-person) nor are his words, by that virtue, delivered to the reader firsthand; and more often than not, to these narrators either. He is, in other words, like a song or text himself, which may be why each member of the surrounding cast seems to interpret him according to their own biases; why, for some, his message and presence resonate from well out of sight and earshot.
“In New York City and in Kingston, both skies blazing bright with noon white, thunder breaks out and a lightning bolt slashes through the clouds. Summer lightning, three months too early. The woman waking up in Manhattan and the woman sitting on the porch in Kingston both know. You’re gone.”
A Brief History of Seven Killings is writing at eighteen hundred degrees. Marlon James is, doubtless now, one of the greatest novelists of the day. Yet, as is the case when lightning strikes sand, the result speaks as much to blistering fidelity and force as it does to chaos that is not quite controlled enough. Dead center of the novel sit several overlong and repetitive chapters which try the reader with little to no obvious gain; and several other, later chapters on American shores make a more opaque case for themselves than is helpful at such a ceiling zero.
And then there is the ending itself, which is a little too efficient to leave a mark—too merciful, on the reader, to have a lasting impact. An earlier chapter, arguably the novel’s most impactful, sees four boys shot on a black beach, their deaths set against the cries and flashing white of gulls and breaking waves, and they deserved as painless a finish as the book could bring; the reader, on the other hand, it’s hard to say. Because endings can be, can they not, what separates the masterful from the masterpiece; just as an artist ultimately cohering a work’s disparate elements can make each flawless independently, which James comes shy of doing. Something new is blowing here, nevertheless, and it may just be the wind that tomorrow tips the scales.