This is the 300th book review I have posted on this blog*, and it seems appropriate that its focus is a contemporary – and critically acclaimed – massive novel.
A Brief History of Seven Killings won this year’s Man Booker Prize, which is obviously an impressive achievement, and it also – which is something the scrawny paperback copy I read cried out repeatedly in a confused boast – was listed in “over 20” “Best Books of 2014” lists. Ooooh. So what this book does, before one even reads the first sentence, is tells you that it’s good. Like, really good. Like it tells you it’s the best fucking book you’re likely to read any fucking time soon, so you’d best enjoy it, ’cause if you don’t, you’re wrong.
High expectations is what it sets itself. I’m a cynic, so I love it when things fail, particularly when publisher’s hubristic – and blatant sales-chasing – cover designs facilitate a grave disappointment with the cultural experience that is given. But – somehow – A Brief History of Seven Killings lives up to its hype. Its trousers are as big as its talk, to mess a metaphor: it makes a very big promise and it fucking delivers.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is a phenomenally successful novel – it is technically proficient, it is moving, it is exciting, it is intelligent and it offers an insight into a lifestyle and a place of which I knew nothing before.
I believe that all good novels should offer the reader some kind of new experience, and that the real difference between literature and trash is that element of something transcendental. That doesn’t mean I think every book one reads should have a different setting and subject matter, but that nothing should even attempt to consider itself literature unless it – at the very least – has the ability to convey a familiar emotion or experience in a new – or at least fresh – way.
The premise of A Brief History of Seven Killings is kind of loose, but in a good way. This is a sprawling novel, covering almost 20 years and diving into the minds and lives of several characters. It is all first person, but switches regularly. We see from the perspective of gang leaders, journalists, gang runners, victims of crimes, witnesses of crimes and those displaced by the violent world around them.
We start in Kingston, Jamaica, and end in New York. We watch Josey Wales rise from gang enforcer through to drugs kingpin, and then see his collapse; we see a woman change identities repeatedly as she runs away from the fallout of an assault upon her middle class parents as the ghetto expands; we see a journalist sent to cover the Rolling Stones for Rolling Stone who instead learns a terrifying secret and becomes obsessed by it; we see Cuban bomb experts, corrupt CIA officers, children recruited by gangs in exchange for cocaine, we dive into the New York gay scene of the 80s through the perspective of gangsters able to freely indulge their desires for the first time, we see a terrifying female mob boss in Miami who feeds her enemies to crocodiles, we see torture and violence and we keep coming back to one fatal night: the night when a group of gunmen tried to assassinate The Singer, as Bob Marley is referred to throughout the text. This actually happened, this attack, and its perpetrators are still unknown. Marlon James takes this incident and spins out his many threads from people who were involved: those who did it, those who saw it and those who discovered things about it that they shouldn’t have.
In many ways, it’s a thriller. There are twists and turns, an “oh my facking christ” reveal at one point, there is humour and there is a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot of violence. Guns, bombs, knives, fists, electrical torture: A Brief History of Seven Killings does not hold back: it is gruesome and grizzly and cruel, but it also contains a lot of warmth.
It is also – and this would be my one criticism – distractingly technically proficient. I mean in terms of the language, in terms of the voices of each of the characters, in terms of the plotting, in terms of the deeply evocative descriptions of all kind of scenes. It’s varied, and describes music, drug use, sex, political engagement, geography, mental illness and literature in the same vivid prose. One cannot fault the book’s literary merit – there are no errors – and in comparison to The Great Gatsby, the last book I read (let my gushing review gush over you here), its greatness is far more polished and practiced. A Brief History of Seven Killings never puts a foot wrong – but, as I argue in the above-linked blog – is perfection truly beautiful? Is the greatest Art the Art that is the most technically proficient, or the Art that hits the viewer deep within the body with a resounding and unignorable – but difficult to pinpoint – slap? I don’t know, but faultlessness being pretty much the only fault I have with this novel** implies that it is something special. And, I believe, it is.
I was distracted regularly by the references to Bob Marley songs in the first half, and kept disappearing to listen to tracks I hadn’t engaged with since I was a teenager. The one that stuck with me, in my head, was ‘Exodus’, from the album Exodus. A lyric in this song, and one particularly pertinent to this milestone, this 300th blog, is the following:
Open your eyes and look within: are you satisfied with the life you’re living?
An important question, and one I am asking myself a lot at the moment.
During the moments when I was reading A Brief History of Seven Killings, yes: yes, I was satisfied. In the moments when I wasn’t…
I need to be writing properly again. 300 is too big a number, throwing dust into the wind.
Let’s see what happens.
And let’s hope it’s good.
* 300 is a big number. In the context of that film, 300, it is meant to be a small number, the amount of people in a small army fighting a massive one. In the context of how many book reviews a man has published on an internet blog during the course of a little under three years, it’s a lot.
300 works out as an average of more than two books a week. There have been weeks (glorious, beautiful weeks) where I’ve read more than one book every day, and there have been weeks where I haven’t managed to get through a novella due to various other distractions – be those professional, academic or the time my nan died. In that time I have changed a lot.
Triumph of the Now began as an attempt to reinvent my self-opinion. I started it around the same time as I began to apply for MA courses in Creative Writing: aware that my life was going in directions I did not want it to go in, I started to fight back. My hits have steadily grown, too: I get an average of about 50 a day, nowadays, which isn’t that impressive when you compare it to the fucking 3.5 trillion daily hits Google gets, but it’s a lot compared to how many people visit my YouTube channel. This blog, hence its name, was about my attempts to rediscover happiness within my own lifestyle, to live in the Now, to be happy with the person I was and the life that I was living. In the time since it began, I have attempted to improve my physical health through many botched lifestyle changes, I have completed an MA in Creative Writing, I have eschewed shit office jobs and taken a demanding – though reasonably impressive – job in hospitality, I have tried and failed to become an online rapper, I have shorn off my hair, I have travelled alone quite a bit – particularly during that first Summer (see here for a blow-by-blow account of my breakdown), I have completed a Biblical novel and a book-length travel journal, I have researched projects I’ve abandoned and I’ve-
I struggle, and this is the real point, to think of things I’ve achieved without immediately thinking of my failures. I finished a Biblical novel, yes, BUT no one wanted to publish it, in the end, despite a few people sniffing around for a while. Since then, I haven’t written another novel. I’ve poured hours and hours and hours of my time into this confessional, autobiographical literary blog, but what has that afforded me and how have I benefitted? I’ve filled this website with naked pictures of myself as a metaphor for the over-exposing of the self I do within the prose, but I’ve still got a website full of naked pictures of myself. It’s a bit desperate, isn’t it? It’s a bit attention-seeking?
I used to like to think that one day, if I ever managed to write a published book, this extensive back catalogue of exploratory thoughts would be picked over and analysed by critics/academics and used as a harsh and destructive tool in reviews of my own work. Criticising me on the points that I had criticised other people. But as time goes on I realise how unlikely that will be. I’ve now reviewed 300 books, and the Big Time ain’t comin’ yet. There was a time, as hard as it is to believe, when I thought the blog itself may’ve been useable as a way to GET myself attention – that enough people would end up reading this for people to contact me and say “I and the rest of the Nobel panel have been reading your blog and we bloody love it! Have you got a book to publish so we can give you our prize?” “Have I,” I’d say, “Yeah, of course: I’ve got three.” In the time since I last thought that optimistically, I have added no other books to my oeuvre, though have written two or three novel-length pieces in word count on this blog. Hundreds of thousands of words, here, wasted. With far less effort and time gone into each word and sentence than went into those included in White Lines///Black Truffles, Alone But Not Lonely and The Body and the Baptist, but with far more attention paid to them. If I’d had a book published and the whole book had been bought by as many people as had clicked onto Triumph of the Now in the last few years, I’d have a bestseller on my hands.
After all this time, trying to express my opinions and frequently failing to justify them, I’m not certain I’ve ever got closer to a universal truth than I did many years ago in Sad Man on a Beach. The optimistic note aside, not much has changed:
** The other one is the fact that only one of the recurring narrators (there are about seven or eight) is female, but it’s a novel about masculinity in many ways, so why do liberal box-ticking?