Marlon James’s Savage Business

Nadia Ellis

The irony in the title of Marlon James’s new novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is twofold. For one, this 686-page book is far from brief. On the contrary, it is a raucous, nearly overwhelming, quite relentless thing, a work that wears its ambition extravagantly. It is also, just as clearly, not quite history.

An idiosyncratic, highly formalistic piece of historical fiction, set in late 20th-century Jamaica, the novel (and its author’s reception in the press) calls to mind an earlier moment in the 1950s and ’60s, when Caribbean writers living abroad provoked startled notice in the Western literary establishment. This first empire-strikes-back generation was full of bright sparks—Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, George Lamming, Sam Selvon—who made of Caribbean English a whole new language, refashioning the tools of the literary tradition foisted upon them.

Born in 1970, Marlon James is a generation and a half removed from that earlier iteration of anglophone postcoloniality. He came of age when the islands were no longer under the shadow of British colonialism but instead experiencing the ascendancy of US capital. The latter is a phenomenon not often named empire, and yet its trademarks include disproportionate American influence at both the IMF and the World Bank (whose structural adjustment policies have been catastrophic for the Jamaican economy); extensive covert statecraft; and globalized television (like pretty much all his contemporaries everywhere, James was raised on American TV).

The aesthetic principles guiding this generation and the terms framing the reception of its output are urgent questions that James faces boldly in this novel. He does this most interestingly, and most problematically, by patterning certain aspects of A Brief History on one of its main influences: Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. One thing this striking bit of intertextuality does not allow James to do, however, is figure out his novel’s relationship to sex. Comparison is a savage business, as one discovers afresh in reading this work and pursuing its self-conscious parallels. Savage, too, is drug dealing, and so is late-stage capitalism. And very brutal, in the context of this book, is sex. Its highly confrontational and distinctly voyeuristic presentation throughout the novel is both thoroughgoing (which is to say, constant) and somehow shallow. Yet it cannot be resisted. This is a strange combination of effects vis-à-vis sex—at once slight and implacable—in a book determined to be part of a sea change in perceptions of Jamaican literary culture.

<i>Trenchtown (West Kingston), May 10, 2014</i>. Photograph by Neil Moralee / Flickr

A Brief History of Seven Killings tells the story of murders that take place primarily in Kingston during the 1970s and ’80s within the milieu of rival gangs and their affiliated politicians. Motivating much of the first third of the narrative is a plot to murder Bob Marley (featured here as a gnomic figure called The Singer). Marley was famously subject to assassination attempts and in 1976 was actually shot. James approaches this most spectacular of occurrences obliquely, focusing instead on the environment that gave rise to it, from the perspective of the lowest-level gang members to that of the “dons”—the gang leaders—who likely orchestrated it. And while it is possible to fixate on the audacious taking-up of this famous story, one that remains mysterious and controversial to this day, in a sense the novel only begins there. What it proceeds to do is follow the gangs as they accumulate power in Jamaica and ultimately go global.

Each of the novel’s five chapters is narrated by a different character (of which there are dozens), giving each section a specific voice and a specific, and limited, viewpoint. And James is a master vocalist. Very few writers could manage the sheer number of differences he plays with here. For example, there is the chilling genius Papa-Lo, a drug don who speaks with the cunning of a master manipulator, strategically affecting stupidity, but thinks in a highly poetic form of Jamaican Patois: “The sun rise up and squat down on the sky like it no have nowhere to go. … Preacher said man like me will never know peace and I accept that. But something ’bout today feel specially off.” There is the ambitious and arrogant Rolling Stone reporter Alex Pierce, whose brittle anxiety to be authentic, and to be right, registers on every page: “I asked him about the night before the army killed those boys at Green Bay … Had he heard of Junior Soul? You can’t trust that a gunman with a name like a doo-wop singer actually exists.” And there are multiple boys, those disposable gang recruits (to be born male in particular neighborhoods is essentially to be recruited), whose consciousnesses are violated so early on that their speech is broken sometimes to the point of opacity, sometimes with chilling edges of clarity. Here is one of them, Bam-Bam, from the very beginning of the novel:

 

Two men bring guns to the ghetto. One man show me how to use it. But ghetto people used to kill each other long before that. With anything we could find: stick, machete, knife, ice pick, soda bottle. Kill for food. Kill for money. Sometimes a man get kill because he look at another man in a way that he didn’t like. And killing don’t need no reason. This is ghetto. Reason is for rich people. We have madness.

 

Nonetheless, the virtuosic polyphony of the book does create an occasionally bewildering sense of sprawl—there isn’t really a center to the novel, despite some reviewers’ insistence that it is the Marley plot. Rather, James is attempting to tell the story of Jamaica from the 1970s to the ’90s, somehow both piecemeal and entire. Those two decades were politically fraught, culturally dynamic, and in retrospect utterly formative. James sets out to portray and understand Jamaica’s curious capacity to register, somehow simultaneously, as piddling and significant; radically sui generis yet annexed to American capital; composed of people preternaturally spiritual and erratically violent. His premise is that to understand these contradictions one must understand the ’70s, and he makes this case compellingly.

I was rather less convinced that understanding Jamaica requires quite this much of everything: pages, characters, violence, sex. Those features of excess, so central to the experience of this novel, have more to do with James’s relationship to Bolaño, whose Savage Detectives James has said was “a very conscious template” for A Brief History. Ostensibly a narrative about the search for lost poets, Bolaño’s novel seems to recount the whole of Mexico’s history over two decades, from the 1970s to the ’90s: migration and diaspora; the rise of the narco-trade; the decimation of the middle class; the way the high-literary elite of two previous generations had settled into memory and fusty sofas, leaving Mexico’s young artists to reconfigure their relationship to Europe. Bolaño achieves all this by telling his story slowly, piece by piece; only by the end do you realize just how much you’ve been shown. Like James’s Brief History, Bolaño’s book is massive, its chapters episodic and focalized through dozens of characters.

James has transposed many of the features of The Savage Detectives into the Jamaican context—an interesting but tricky homage. In A Brief History of Seven Killings, as in its model, detection—the search for assassins this time, rather than for poets—provides the pretext for telling the story of a nation during two formative decades. In both books brief, intense, episodic chapters in the voices of a number of characters tell of various encounters and connections, but all along they are also and foremost weaving a narrative of how Mexico/Jamaica came to be what it is now. In James’s novel, sex, far more violent and conflicted than in Bolaño’s text, is considered integral to the narrative.

The new novel from Marlon James is a raucous, nearly overwhelming, quite relentless thing, a work that wears its ambition extravagantly.

But James’s use of multiple voices in A Brief History can feel dizzying in its frequent shifts, baroque and self-conscious in its experimentation, and sometimes opaque even to a speaker of Jamaican Patois. There is, for instance, at least one five-page sentence with no punctuation at all. It is preceded by a chapter narrated by Bam-Bam entirely in verse. Clearly, James is interested in mimicking the violence of his subject matter in the rhetoric of the novel. His prose perceptibly intensifies, taking on defamiliarizing effects, when gang members are about to kill or be killed. But because this is a novel about killing, intensity soon becomes the norm. And while James is busy making an important case for a new way to think about and experience Jamaican language—saturated with American references rather than British ones, suffused with everyday violence the way dancehall music is, not lyrical like roots reggae—a reader might well start to miss the easier style of earlier masters of Caribbean literary Creole, as well as Bolaño’s ability to combine experimentation with readability.

James’s reference to Bolaño also asks us to take seriously the idea that the anglophone Caribbean islands might be considered Latin American. People don’t always know what they mean when they say Latin American; the Latin mostly refers to language, so that, say, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are labeled Latin American. But then Haiti, like its English-speaking neighbors, gets included in the fold for weirdly bureaucratic motives, like when various US or UN programs need a handy way to describe developing countries in the Western hemisphere. James understands the complexity and arbitrariness of these geopolitical terms: witness the multiple instances, in the sections narrated by Papa-Lo and by the gang subordinate Weeper, when Jamaicans cast a jaundiced eye on the way Colombians, just like the Americans, underestimate and seek to manipulate these putatively backward islanders.

A Brief History shows how the US in the 1970s, frightened by the specter of a swathe of socialist islands aligned with Cuba, sent CIA operatives to back the Jamaica Labour Party against the then-ruling leftist People’s National Party. During the momentous election year of 1976, machine guns arrived. Electoral politics were still relatively young—Jamaica had gained independence from Britain only in 1962—and already in thrall to a local brand of cronyism in which politicians worked with community dons to control constituencies. All of this quickly escalated into full-scale globalized corruption.

The United States’ involvement in Latin American political violence is by now a fairly well-acknowledged part of the recent history of such nations as Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, and Guatemala, but it has been far less well-understood that the smaller, English-speaking nations between North and South America, including Jamaica and Grenada, also had a share in that galling aspect of American statecraft. The drug wars, dictators, and massive genocides perpetrated in the nations of Central and South America have been of such spectacular horror that the role of the apparently slight islands threading between the American continents can seem, well, like nothing.

James is attempting to tell the story of Jamaica from the 1970s to the ’90s, somehow both piecemeal and entire.

But as James shows, the CIA was in Jamaica, too, and worried about Cuba’s influence over the island’s left-leaning Prime Minister Michael Manley in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Some of the most entertaining and troubling parts of A History of Seven Killings are those told from the perspective of American CIA officers, like the character Barry Diflorio. They are funny—indeed, some passages read as parody—and present the clearest narrative of what “everyone already knows” about American involvement in the island. These sections confirm the suspicions prompted by the plot and ironically indulge in some familiar tropes of detective fiction. But Diflorio is troubling, too, because here James’s feel for voice wavers and the line between realism and parody is sometimes blurry.

Conversely, one of the most distinct and compelling voices anchoring the novel belongs to that of a middle-class woman who is ripe for parody, Nina Burgess. This is important. Nina represents a certain stripe of Jamaican person rendered in fiction even less frequently than the young gangsters James depicts. Suburban, educated just well enough to know there is much she does not know, born to parents of extravagant snobbery and the peculiar, class- and shade-inflected racism that black Jamaicans perpetrate against each other, Nina is a very particular Kingston sort. She is circumscribed by the country’s politics and economics, though her privilege—she is most frequently bored—means that experiences like hers barely seem legitimate in the larger scheme of things.

Jamaica is in crisis when Nina first arrives in the narrative. There is a curfew; elections are gearing up; politicians are making deals with dons; a plot is afoot to murder the country’s biggest star, its beacon of cultural legitimacy. Nina’s relationship to all this seems to be tangential—she first appears as merely one of the many middle-class girls Marley slept with. But her chapters jolt the narrative back to something recognizable after it takes its furthest flights into rhetorical excess and murky plot violence. This despite the fact that Nina keeps changing her identity, ending up finally in the Bronx, like several of the surviving gang members, doing at-home care for the rich elderly.

The Nina sections demonstrate the difficulty James has moving between the panoramic and the personal. They also, alas, highlight the problems of its commitment to presenting violent sexuality. (Nina finds herself narrating her transactional sex in minute and sometimes counterfactual detail.) This was an issue in James’s previous novel as well. Similarly ambitious, The Book of Night Women (2009) is set on an 18th-century Jamaican slave plantation, tells of a plot by a group of slave women to rebel, and repeatedly describes the main character’s rapes and beatings at the hand of her white overseer. The intent of the repetition, presumably, was to approach something of the chilling daily experience of violation for the slave women. The effect is a fraught combination of readerly voyeurism, complicity, and numbness. 

One thing that taking Bolaño’s novel as a model does not allow James to do, however, is figure out his own novel’s relationship to sex. 

At least two things are happening in the new novel’s extravagant investment in violent sexual discourse, both connected to James’s ideas about Jamaica’s meaning in regional and literary history. For one, the sex is like state terror: monolithic and integral. For another, it gestures to Bolaño through opposition: The Savage Detectives also has long, indulgent passages of men having sex, but these register nostalgia, not, as in James’s work, a kind of primary subjective disturbance.

But if the novel’s sex can be contextualized by these lights, it cannot quite be intellectually or aesthetically recuperated. “Bend her over and rub the cunt and hoist up the battyhole and sink down the cock and it tight feel like piece of liver wrap ’round you cocky,” one character says. Another: “Jamaican police wouldn’t find a billboard in the middle of Half Way Tree with a naked woman spread out fingering her pussy and saying look up here, Babylon.” These passages are entirely representative, found in various permutations on what can feel like every page, and their impact is not particularly transformed for being decontextualized here. What this means is that, for all the potential of explicit sexual representations to challenge a reader and to inspire thought, James here mostly replicates the effect of sexual violence as suffusion. This effect is accurate in its way—misogyny, homophobia, and abuse, and the use of sex and language to convey them are, indeed, widespread in Jamaica. This novel, though, wed to a poetics of excess, sacrifices the potential for empathy (so much of the sex is presented as if narrators were hovering somewhere above the action); for complication (a rigid verisimilitude marks the sexism of the characters); or indeed, for reflection (since there is virtually no pause in the presentation). 

One might say that to narrate a country as muddling and singular as Jamaica you need many voices, all the voices. But a novel with a Cast of Characters list three pages long is a worrisome thing. A reader detects indulgence before even beginning. There are risks involved in the kind of work James is doing here, and this is a wild and an important novel that takes many risks. If A Brief History of Seven Killings is a bold proposition about anglophone Caribbean fiction now—how its referents are Southern and hemispheric, not just classically postcolonial; how the noise, clutter, and violence of people’s lives can be linked to the anodyne fact of “globalized capital”—then it is the kind of proposition that an explosive blast makes. He has opened up an enormous field of questions; the field is open now for others to try their hands, too.