Marlon James Complicates the Narrative

By Dan O'Donnell
Marlon James. Picture via Nicholas Laughlin/Flickr.

Marlon James. Picture via Nicholas Laughlin/Flickr.

It is a relatively mundane occurrence for ghost stories and accounts of weird and uncanny phenomena to find their way onto the front pages of the Daily Gleaner, Jamaica’s 149-year-old newspaper. Occult phenomena of one form or another seem to be common in Jamaica, and although no one is exactly sure why this is so…the practice of dispassionately reporting these events is accepted as a part of everyday life.

— Timothy White, Catch A Fire: The Life of Bob Marley

“Listen.” It’s the first word uttered by Marlon James’ first narrator. He happens to be dead. And over the course of 700+ pages, he’ll be joined by nearly as many bodies.

Past deaths…future deaths…deaths being planned or being executed… James’ new novel A Brief History of Seven Killings is, in many ways, a ghost story from cover to cover.

Dead Jamaicans pervade the pages, accreting like sediment on top of the book’s seismic center: the attempted assassination in 1976 of reggae superstar Bob Marley.

The language of death and dying even plays a role in how James found his way to his most striking (if sometimes cumbersome) narrative conceit: a Dramatis Personae of more than eighty named characters—many of whom are also narrators.

“I kept running into these dead ends,” James says. “Because I kept thinking it was one person’s story. And it wasn’t until somebody pointed out to me that maybe this is not one person’s story—maybe this is like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.”

Marley himself is very nearly a ghost; referred to only as “The Singer,” he is less a character and more a spectral presence for most of the book’s first half. The author says he had to reduce Marley lest the legendary musician simply overwhelm the book’s workaday characters, who are guns-for-hire, politicos, CIA agents, cartel operators, and middle-class Kingstonians.

The book begins in 1970s Kingston, where two competing political parties have enlisted dons from rival slums, and vicious reprisal violence marks daily life for residents of the projects. The eye of the storm is forever the house at 56 Hope Road, the residence of “The Singer,” but even he becomes embroiled when an ostensibly partisan-free peace concert is co-opted by the sitting government as a P.R. stunt, just days before an election.

After an attempt on Marley’s life, the camera pulls focus and the horizons bolt outward, as James imagines the worlds of his would-be assassins as they become the puppets (and puppet-masters) of the 1980s crack explosion in New York and Miami.

“I started to explore the afterlives; I grew up in Jamaica and I had no idea that some of these people would go on to play such a major role in 1980s drug gangs and violence,” says James.

As another of James’ recurring narrators, Nina Burgess, says, “The problem with a book is that you never know what it’s planning to do to you until you’re too far into it.”

James is a professor of creative writing at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. His previous book, The Book of Night Women, won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction. That book also explored Jamaican identity, culture, and race; James was born in Kingston in 1970 and lived there (and occasionally in New York City) until 2007.

The sheer brutality of A Brief History of Seven Killings, of the lives of its central characters, will certainly come as a shock to those accustomed of thinking of Jamaica as all white sand and cool runnings. It’s not beach reading. But Marlon James has created is a musical symphony of voices and colors, patois and dialect. And the sounds of reggae, ska, New York punk, and Caribbean pop thrum in the background.

“Listen,” indeed.

TBQ talked to Marlon James about what he learned from Chekhov, international geopolitical intrigue, and Bob Marley.


This book goes everywhere. Where did it start?

I wasn’t necessarily trying to write a crime novel, but I did start out writing about a very, very conflicted hit man [named John-John K]. One of the reasons why I think I started out with him is that I, like everyone else, love writing about hit men. But they’re always so cold and calculated and efficient and perfect, and John-John K is actually a mess: He’s a sloppy hit man, he has a lot of collateral damage, he’s still moaning about how his boyfriend won’t talk to him.

The original idea was that the person he kills, it happens to be one of the guys who tries to kill [Bob Marley]—it was almost a minor plot. I was reading Chekhov. He has this great story, “A Trifle from Real Life” where you spend the whole time following this guy who’s trying to break up with his girlfriend, who already has kids with her last husband. And it’s not ’til the very end that you realize that the story is about Aliosha [one of her sons] all along. Even though he only gets one line in the story, he’s the guy who changes. So that’s kinda how it started out, at very normal Chekhovian omniscience—it just didn’t go anywhere.

Even when I (didn’t) have the structure, I still had very clear ideas about where this book was going to go. It was going to start with the assassination attempt and then I was going to do that Truman Capote thing where you tell it slant, and you stick to the event but widen the coverage of it and widen the perspective, and I started doing that, and I just got really bored.

Because, ultimately, if you look at it in that sense, it’s really just a bunch of thugs trying to kill a rock star.

It wasn’t until I went back to the original source of what piqued my curiosity — Timothy White’s sort of postscript to his Catch a Fire bio in a SPIN issue in 1991 — and I saw the afterlives of some of the characters I was writing about, and that’s when it turned into a bigger story.

[James casts the failed attempt on Marley’s life as part of an extensive island-wide campaign of political destabilization, for which James (like many) obliquely implicates the CIA. In James’ telling, many of the thugs involved migrate to Miami and New York after the shooting to push cocaine as part of a criminal syndicate. We asked James about this storyline in light of the recent rekindling of interest in journalist Gary Webb’s “Dark Alliance” expose.]

I had no idea that some of these people would go on to play such a major role in 1980s drug gangs and violence and the Jamaican posses. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, in fact, I really hate conspiracy theory, but, when you see some of the names cropping up—if you’re in Jamaica in 1976, you know the names.

I know the Frank Carluccis, and the Larry Devlins, and the Norman Descoteauxs [CIA Station chief in Jamaica in the 1970s]—I know them. That’s how the novel kind of, sort of exploded right in my face.

This is a big portrait of Kingston, of Jamaican cultural life, over a couple decades. Did you feel like you have to tread lightly as a “cultural ambassador”?

There is a pressure sometimes, I think, and it sometimes comes from Jamaica, that every person must somehow work for the Jamaican Tourism Board.

When people usually think of Jamaica, they tend to think it’s sunny, beautiful beaches, OR lots of violence. I don’t understand the knack of tourists for picking the most depressed, backwards, rundown, violent areas—and they lament, ‘It was beautiful but I had to leave…’

Because you went to the wrong place!

In the 1980s, I would not live in Bushwick. You know, up to the mid ‘90s, if you lived in Bed-Stuy, you deserved what happened to you.

I was at a promotional thing for booksellers in Minnesota, and the person who was checking me in, of course, had lived in Jamaica and I’m like, ‘Oh Lord, where’s this gonna go?’ And the more I kept telling her how stable, in fact, how dull my upbringing was—my problem with growing up in the suburbs is everybody in the world’s who grew up in the suburbs, it’s too boring—she just couldn’t grasp it. She thought I was in denial. She said, “You must have seen some violence,” and I’m like, “No, I never did,” and then she gave me that “I expected more from you” look.

I was like, Wow. Like, really…I spent my ‘80s in a fight between Michael Jackson and Prince. That’s what we did.

At what point did you realize that even sort of the confines of these lightly or even heavily fictionalized characters wasn’t going to be enough but you had to pan backwards even further?

At one point I was only interested in these characters in the context of the shooting, so once I started to recognize them as real characters—and not even that, once I started to realize I think it’s a bigger story for me, I do go back and forth…that is, if you want to talk about 1976, you kinda have to talk about 1966, and you kinda have to talk about the 50s.

And you start to talk about Jamaica’s image abroad and things that don’t concern the big narrative or the history but do concern the people. Like for me, one of the most telling scenes for me is when one of the characters talk about the whites in Jamaica who go to America to teach [Americans] how to dance. It doesn’t necessarily hold a lot of resonance for non-Jamaicans, but that was a big thing for Jamaicans.

The fact is: Ska came from the ghetto, ska is as “roots” as reggae. And the amazing ska band was the Skatalites, but the Jamaican government at that time said that this band was too black, too ghetto, too roots to take abroad, so they had this other band of mixed race—Chinese and white/light-skinned Jamaicans—called Byron Lee and the Dragonaires.

And the guys running this band are very, very rich, white Jamaicans that are going abroad to teach Americans how to dance the Ska. Like, you know? As if it’s the Twist. But it was a very, very sanitized and racially cleaned-up thing, which one of my characters noticed. So it’s those things I wanted people to understand about, for example, Jamaica’s racial dynamic.

One other thing that influenced me was in Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel has a chapter called “An Occult History of Britain,” and for the first time, she shoots far and wide beyond the original scope of the book, to the formation of England itself, and I realized how crucial that was, to expand and sort of populate the world of the novel.

You recently gave some remarks at a literary conference about “argumentative fiction.” Is A Brief History an argument novel, and what is the argument?

I kind of think it is; I think people are afraid to say things like that because it sounds so pretentious. It’s loaded with arguments—but I don’t think I solved any of them.

I am concerned about the tricky ways in which Jamaica likes to think it escapes a race argument; meanwhile there are a lot of racist things that it doesn’t realize.

So yeah, that is, I have some concern about things like race; I am concerned about the legacy of the Cold War, and when are we going to come to terms with that? You know, again, I don’t think I set out an agenda because I hate when novelists have agendas.

But I do think that if you’re gonna blow your novel wide open, I think you can’t help but be political. Especially in the moment of time that I was writing about, 1976. I mean, my character Nina says, “I hate politics, and I hate that I’m supposed to know.”

I do have to ask you about Bob Marley.

Reggae was a turning point in the use of voice in narrative, and, in not just Jamaican but in Caribbean fiction, as Calypso was in Trinidad. Sadly, it was not the literary writers, it was not the novelists, it was not the poets, I think. It was not necessarily these people who truly embraced patois and dialect as a voice for speaking, as a tool in art. It really was the musicians that, that taught us that.

I’m amazed how many people did not know how threatened Marley’s life was, and that death threats were a regular thing for him.

And I have to break it down and say: Picture me in a situation where I wake up, it’s Election Day, and go outside, the people who haven’t voted are already dead because they were killed. I’m heading to vote, two people remind me that I have children; by the time I get to vote, I’m told, oh you don’t have to come, you already voted, and instead of being horrified, I think, That’s an okay day!

And then somebody comes and says, “You really need to start thinking for yourself, because these people don’t mean anything to you, this is -ism and schism…” or

Most people think,
Great God will come from the skies,
Take away everything
And make everybody feel high.
But if you know what life is worth,
You will look for yours on earth:
And now you see the light,
You stand up for your rights.

[from “Get Up Stand Up”]

If a lyric like that comes into the ghetto, I’m gonna start thinking, and I might change my mind; and if I, one person in the ghetto, changes my mind, I become one of many that changes Kingston’s mind. And if I change Kingston’s mind, I change a Jamaican election.

Before all of that happens, someone’s gonna have to neutralize the source of this.

So: If a novel helps expand someone’s view, then great; I didn’t deliberately set out to do it. I think maybe the best political statements happen by accident.

I tell my students all the time, “Complicate the narrative, complicate the narrative.” That is what makes people stay with something even if they wouldn’t normally read it. People always tell me, god, this is the most violent thing they’ve ever read to the end. And I’m like, “Well, my work here is done.”


Dan O’Donnell is a radio producer and writer in New York.

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