To Understand Dead is To Understand Dead is Not Gone

Book Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Marlon James’ Man Booker Prize-winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, tells the story of the attempted assassination of musician Bob Marley on December 3, 1976, and explores the aftermath of that attempt, reaching beyond Marley’s eventual death from cancer in 1981, to a changed and changing Jamaica in 1991.

At the center of James’ novel is Bob Marley, but he is a Bob Marley who remains largely silent, other than statements or actions that are documented historical fact. Referred to as the Singer throughout the novel, in both a nod to his larger-than-life status in his hometown and in popular culture, and a perhaps crucial reminder that this is a fictional account, Marley is also present at neither beginning nor end – rather he, or his attempted assassination, is the force or specter driving the novel and linking together the various characters and voices that make up the story. As one character, Rolling Stone journalist Alex Pierce, comments, “…I am slowly realizing that, even though the Singer is the center of the story, that it really isn’t his story. Like there’s a version of this story that’s not really about him, but about the people around him, the ones who come and go that might actually provide a bigger picture…” This focus on the voices of the people around Marley allows the novel to attempt its near-epic scope, beginning with the murder of prominent politician, Sir Arthur George Jennings, related by his ghost, and ending in the cocaine and crack wars of 1980s New York and Miami.

It is in the creation and characterization of these diverse voices that James excels, something that undoubtedly contributed to his Man Booker Prize win. James’ cast of characters ranges from teenage gunmen to CIA agents to politicians, with journalists, scared witnesses, and ghosts filling the spaces in between. As Pierce says, the novel is really their story – the story of the people who navigate the political tensions and culture that lead up to and follow the assassination attempt. As such, it is also the story of the political tensions and culture of the Kingston ghettoes, and the eventual impact of that culture on parts of the American drug trade, during the time in question.

A Brief History of Seven Killings opens on a Kingston at war, where the political disputes and differences between the ruling socialist People’s National Party (PNP) and the conservative Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) manifest as gang warfare in the partisan ghettoes in which one must stand with the area’s party affiliation or stand, until shot down, one one’s own. Jennings’ ghost describes a “reverse evolution” created by fear, one in which ghetto inhabitants start the day walking or running to shops or schools, but by evening “creep from room to room and eat dinner on the floor like bottom-feeders. By night everybody is flat on the linoleum but nobody is asleep. Children lie on their backs and wait for the burst of bullets on zinc like hail. Bullets in traffic with bullets, zipping through windows, across ceilings, bursting holes in walls, mirrors, overhead lights and any fool that stands up.” In this climate, the Singer agrees to perform in a peace concert designed to promote a cease-fire between the warring territories, but backed by the Prime Minister and the PNP. This is enough to convince the CIA, who are terrified that the country might “fall” to communism, and the JLP gunmen they hire, that the publically-neutral Singer is a PNP supporter, and thus the assassination plot is born.

Poet of the Week

Valentina Neri

The little match seller

Every match a dream

Every dream a flight!

One flight after another

On the filthy and shear snow

That scratches the child with asphalt

Death makes its way

And turns her body to marble.

Swallow her silent and alert mouth

Grab her round bare little hands

Snatch her lifetime interrupted

By a macramè frill

Grab her knees dirtied on all fours

Grasp her fury without aims

Seize! Her vices as impulsive butterflies

Grasp! Her oxymoron that prolongs time

Seize! The freezing cold of her motionless tender feet

Grasp! Her waiting at the pulsing of the body

Seize! Her implacable disposition to die

Grasp! The scream of her dreaming heart

Seize! Her frozen match on the ground

Grasp! Her last fleeting moan!

Light the burn out match

Brighten the enchantment of her dream

Clean the filthy snow

Melt that marble body

Soothe the asphalt scratches

Release her breath

Raise her body from the floor

Allow her the last flight.

To understand the motivations of, and pressures on the characters, we must first understand the history and state of the politics of Jamaica as a whole, and the warring Kingston ghettoes in particular. James narrates this history through the reflections of his characters, and for the most part, he is successful in doing so. Don Papa Lo and his once-deputy Josey Wales (loosely based on real-life gangster Lester Coke), the man who leads the assassination attempt and with whose death the novel eventually winds to a close, provide a great deal of this background information, with only the occasional resort to clunky exposition and, in doing so, reveal their own ideas, biases, and richly nuanced personalities. Weeper, a gunman who struggles with his sexuality, is another stand-out character, whose narrative is surprisingly poignant; in the finest Dostoyevskian style, James succeeds in making his reader sympathetic toward a variety of men who have committed murders and other, worse atrocities.

While the characterization of Papa Lo, Josey Wales, Weeper, and other Kingston residents results in strikingly well-defined and realized voices, some of James’ other characters are less successful. CIA agent Barry DiFlorio is perhaps the worst of these, with wooden, unrealistic dialogue (“Go to bed, guys. Gee, neither of you kiss your pop anymore?”) and long sections of historical exposition that serve little purpose in the story, other than providing the reader with the background information they need to understand the agency’s involvement. This seems even more unnecessary when we meet another CIA agent through Josey Wales’ eyes; James’ description of the man attempting to lecture Wales about free-market economies and communism via a coloring book says almost as much about CIA attitudes and concerns as the DiFlorio passages.

In a novel spanning three decades and narrated, in turns, by eleven different people, James frames his story through the characters of Josey Wales and Nina Burgess. Burgess, a former one-time lover of the Singer, flees Kingston after witnessing the assassination attempt, changing her name and even her accent and patterns of speech, in order to remain hidden and protect her life. Even so, enough of her personality shines through to indicate to the reader that the Dorcas Palmer or Millicent Segree narrating this section is really Burgess in hiding. It is with her that the story comes to a close; having heard of Wales’ murder in prison, she is finally free to contact her family, and so the novel ends with her speaking her first words to her sister in some fifteen years. Her story, one of a woman tied to the other characters through only the misfortune of having been in the wrong place at the wrong time, serves to highlight the far-reaching (and often unknown and unintended) effects of the other characters’ actions, while at the same time providing a voice and point of view from someone existing mostly outside the ghetto politics. The juxtaposition between Wales, who orchestrated the assassination attempt and played a major role in the later crack wars, and Burgess, whose anxiety about being recognized is so all-encompassing that she avoids even Jamaican food and newspapers, gives readers a look at both the forces that drive the events and those affected by them.

The murder of Josey Wales in prison is the last in the novel, but it is certainly far more than the seventh. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that the title comes from an article Alex Pierce writes about the crack house shootings that contribute to Josey Wales’ eventual imprisonment; one can only assume that the title is James’ version of irony, as the novel is neither brief nor limited to describing seven murders. Despite its length, and at times uneven pacing, the book is a fast read, and the multitude of voices, to many of whom the reader feels an attachment, keeps the narrative fresh and interesting throughout. It is rare that one can learn so much from a novel without feeling force-fed, but James achieves this feat with grace.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is, by its nature, a violent novel, but James avoids resorting to the “pornography of violence” he said that he feared creating. He does not shy away from describing, and at times narrating, the many deaths that take place in the novel, and these experiences are certainly not romanticized (15-year-old gunman Bam-Bam’s death is a two-page narrative of suffocation, as he is buried alive), but neither are they sensationalized. The deaths are often slow and awkward, and usually pain-filled, but they are narrated with an unflinching realism that focuses as much on the shock and last-minute diversions of the mind, as on the gritty details of wounds and circumstance. Each death feels fresh and distinct, and each is emotionally-charged, no mean feat in a novel of this size and scope.

It is fitting that Marlon James is rumored to be writing an “African Game of Thrones” because, like Thrones author George R.R. Martin, he focuses on balancing and showing the many sides and conflicting natures, ideas, and ethics of his characters, in a story of similarly epic proportions, albeit written in a much more literary style. We are certain that this new project, along with James’ other future work, will be an impressive undertaking indeed.