The Smile Jamaica Concert, scheduled for 5 December 1976, was intended as a celebration of Jamaican unity: in the National Heroes Park in Kingston, the most famous living Jamaican, Bob Marley, would offer an alternative vision of a country badly damaged, at that time, by political resentment and gangland strife. Two decades after independence, Jamaica was still poor, corrupt and divided. ‘We need some change from what it was,’ Marley told an interviewer at the time. ‘It couldn’t get worse than that.’
Somewhat naively, Marley discussed his vision with representatives of Jamaica’s two political parties, the right-of-centre Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the left-wing People’s National Party (PNP). Marley was keen to avoid any show of partisanship. But he was grappling with forces he couldn’t control. The PNP hijacked the concert’s message and Marley found himself accused of betraying the people. Two days before the gig, a group of unidentified men with machine guns broke into his ‘safe house’ on Hope Road and sprayed the place with bullets. Marley was shot in the arm and survived. Two days later, the Smile Jamaica Concert went ahead as scheduled. Marley still had a bullet lodged in his arm.
From the events of 3 December, Marlon James has spun his sprawling, passionate, diffuse third novel, offering a conspiracy theory somewhat after the manner of James Ellroy’s LA Quartet, in which fictional characters step in to illuminate the shadowy corners of history. A Brief History of Seven Killings – shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year – exuberantly hybridises the gangland thriller, the spy story, the emigrant saga and the national epic, with a large dose of self-conscious myth-making thrown in. James is out to capture as much of recent Jamaican history as he can, and his timeline stretches from 1976 to 1991 as he wrestles gangbangers and ghosts, fugitives and secret agents into his amplitudinous scheme. It isn’t entirely successful, for reasons we’ll come to, but James’s page-by-page energy can scarcely be faulted: his imagination is more than equal to his material, and his command of a range of tones and voices approaches the virtuoso.
A Brief History of Seven Killings unspools in lengthy interlocking monologues. In his acknowledgements James cites Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying as a template and says he envisioned ‘a novel that would be driven only by voice’ – and it’s at the level of voice that the novel most fully convinces. Marley (referred to throughout as ‘the Singer’) never speaks, but as one of James’s narrators, Rolling Stone journalist Alex Pierce, observes, ‘even though the Singer is the centre of the story, 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.’
The people around Marley, in James’s version, include the gang leaders Papa-Lo and Josey Wales, CIA spook Barry Diflorio, former Marley one-night stand Nina Burgess and the ghost of murdered politician Sir Arthur George Jennings, all of them expertly ventriloquised in rhythmic and resonant prose. In particular, James’s ear for the sprung rhythms of Jamaican patois is near-flawless. Here, for example, is Josey Wales, describing one of his lieutenants: ‘Picture Weeper walking through Crossroads like a head cock, rocksteady bouncing in his shoes, looking way too boasty for a boy downtown.’
Voice alone, of course, isn’t quite enough to sustain an epic – you also need narrative momentum, and this is where James is weakest. Crucial plot points are clarified by throwaway remarks that arrive a hundred pages too late; chapters tread water for most of their length and then peter out just when the action is about to begin. A commitment to modernist obliquity might work beautifully in a shortish novel such as As I Lay Dying, but stretched out over seven hundred pages, this kind of compulsive indirection can start to feel like a tic. This aside, A Brief History of Seven Killings – violent, profane and preposterously ambitious – is inarguably the work of a significant talent and a solidly rewarding experience, if also, in the end, a rather exhausting one.