OCTOBER 13, 2014
THE TITLE at first seems like a cruel undersell. A Brief History of Seven Killings is, in fact, an expansive book of over 700 pages filled with innumerable killings. Stretching from Kingston, Jamaica, in the mid-1970s, to New York in the early 1990s, it is simultaneously a Cold War thriller, a crack epidemic Blaxploitation piece, an organized crime novel, and an impressionistic account of the assassination attempt on Bob Marley.
A Brief History gets its momentum from James’s characters who, once met, cannot be forgotten: There is Nina Burgess, a young educated woman who once had a dalliance with Marley. Now unemployed, drifting, and increasingly desperate, she sees the circle of poverty and violence closing around her and her family. “This country, this goddamn island, is going to kill us,” she says when we first meet her, and, in the aftermath of the attempt on Marley’s life, this fear will turn her into a shape-shifting fugitive. There is Papa-Lo, the don of Copenhagen City (a Kingston slum that figures largely in the novel) and a close friend of Marley. Sickened by the world of violence he has come to dominate by being the baddest man in the ghetto, and increasingly aware that the Kingston slums he and men like him rule are merely playthings in the hands of Jamaica’s venal politicians, he yearns clumsily, fitfully for redemption. There’s the maniacal Josey Wales, Papa-Lo’s head enforcer, whose stature and ambition expand throughout the story at the expense of nearly everyone he touches; and Barry Diflorio, an experienced CIA agent and Cold Warrior, who, with his family and crumbling marriage in tow, sees his efforts to manipulate Jamaica’s political future spiral out of control. There’s Alex Pierce, a reporter for Rolling Stone who becomes dangerously entangled in the plot to kill Marley, and, of course, Bob Marley himself. Dubbed “The Singer” throughout the book, James’s Marley echoes former Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga’s 1981 description of Marley as a man who was “never seen. He was an experience which left an indelible imprint with each encounter. Such a man cannot be erased from the mind. He is part of the collective consciousness of the nation.”
Add to his gift for creating compelling characters the author’s varied storytelling, and his mastery of the literary set piece, the climactic scene. This epic of many voices rarely flags, and when it does it’s because minor characters, who lack the vivacity of their fellow inventions, narrate entire chapters. But even from them we can glean amazing things. Hear Bam-Bam, a gang member from Copenhagen City:
Boys like me getting older and not in school very regular and can’t read Dick and Jane but know Coca-Cola, and want to go to a studio and cut a tune and sing hit songs and ride the riddim out of the ghetto but Copenhagen City and the Eight Lanes both too big and every time you reach the edge, the edge move ahead of you like a shadow until the whole world is a ghetto.
The prose isn’t always this fine. Since all the chapters use the first person, James occasionally slips into a stream of consciousness in which his use of patois, elsewhere alive with sound, musicality, and humor, devolves into a yammering that is neither evocative nor lyrical.
But, this is a mere quibble in a novel of such scope. Killings is James’s third book, and by now it is clear that historical fiction is his métier, and that the workings of history within fiction and how fiction can work as history are very much on his mind. It’s as if James has taken the question Barry Diflorio asks about the Iranian Revolution — “How does something manage to be surprising and inevitable at the same time?” — and used it as a guiding principle to write his historical narrative. James nurses a great tension in the book between the freedom necessary for creation and regeneration and the constrictions of fate, of history itself. The burden of history weighs on all the characters, however individual and unforgettable, and fate eventually catches them all:
People like me, our life write out before we, without asking we permission. Nothing much we can do ’bout what God decide he want to drop on you. Oh? Is that them call fatalism? I don’t know, brethren, that word seem more connected to fatal than it connected to fate.
And death is the ultimate fate of all history. Against that machinery of fate, the author, himself a native Jamaican, pits Nina Burgess, who thinks that although “you can’t change the country [Jamaica], but maybe you can change yourself.” After a brilliantly crafted episode in which Nina’s sister’s manipulations and envy lead to a startling instance of domestic violence, Nina becomes a witness to the assassination attempt made on The Singer, and bumps right into Josey Wales as he flees the scene. She spends the rest of the novel changing identities, running away from Wales, Jamaica, her history, her self.
But Nina’s act of willful forgetting does not beget freedom. To erase the past, she must also obsess over it in a way any child can recognize — the command is: don’t think about what’s behind you, think about anything else, which of course leads to the opposite of the desired effect. Nor will Nina’s new home in New York allow her to forget, as the gang wars of the Kingston slums make their way to her through the Jamaican immigrant community. The last words of the novel are the beginning of a phone call from someone she hasn’t seen in years. In the end, her history finds her, too.
Many will locate the darkness of James’s book in its killings, but a more nebulous and — because it is inescapable — more menacing darkness floats through the world of this novel. To write history is to draw within lines one cannot change, to see the subjunctive of desire and possibility become the declarative of the immutable. History becomes fate, grinds all to dust, leaves no one free. The world of A Brief History is one that carries within it great doom, an overarching power under which its characters act in vain; “the unrelenting forces,” as Thomas Pynchon wrote in Vineland,
that leaned ever after […] into Time’s wind, impassive in pursuit, usually gaining, the faceless predators who’d […] simply persisted, stone-humorless, beyond cause and effect, rejecting all attempts to bargain or accommodate, […] continuing as a body to refuse to be bought off for any but the full price, which they had never named.
By channeling this vision, James resists the humanist consolations of agency and self-creation, of a world of progress, which, since we accept them passively, threaten to become mere vulgarity. In that, the novel is brave, and terrifying.
Especially after a summer filled with global violence both political and depraved, much might be made of the relentless violence in the novel, and about what it means or if it means anything at all. Rendering violence is partly a badge of honor for James, whose previous efforts, John Crow’s Devil and The Book of Night Women, both set in Jamaica, also contained explicit acts of brutality. His epigraph from Bonnie Raitt explains, “Gonna tell the truth about it, / Honey, that’s the hardest part.” The fact that brutality is difficult to witness and or to relate, that our instincts are to hide from it, is the very reason why it ought to be told. The writing of violence then becomes an act of moral courage in itself.
But transposing violence into words can be a pitched struggle of the novelist against his own talent. Tristan Phillips, once head of The Singer’s failed Peace Council (designed to unite the rival gangs and slums of Kingston), and later an incarcerated member of the Ranking Dons (a Jamaican gang heavily involved in the burgeoning crack trade on the East Coast), is interviewed in prison by the reporter Alex Pierce and briefly comments about reading V. S. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage:
Brethren, the man say West Kingston is a place so fucking bad that you can’t even take a picture of it, because the beauty of the photographic process lies to you as to just how ugly it really is […] Trust me even him have it wrong. The beauty of how him write that sentence still lie to you as to how ugly it is. It so ugly it shouldn’t produce no pretty sentence, ever.
The challenge James recognizes is to relate the horror for what it is, without aestheticizing it, or becoming inured to it. James’s control of his prose throughout the uncountable acts of violence is remarkable. No matter from which perspective we see the killing, James pitches it at a level of disquiet that avoids both our prurient attraction to savagery and our kneejerk abhorrence of it. And although the repetition of outrages can be wearing, James never trips into what one might call The Charnel House Effect — in which the first skull is the stuff of nightmare, the last one the stuff of afternoon naps.
This difficult balance is relinquished only once in the whole novel, in a stunning and very brief chapter narrated by Weeper, one of Josey Wales’s most trusted associates. The impulse James has been resisting, the lurid thrill of pornographic violence, finally gives way before the demonic energy of his greatest creation. Josey Wales is a psychopath who sees through everyone, anticipates everything, accepts the world for what it is, and exploits it ruthlessly. He is, like Shakespeare’s Iago or Nathanael West’s Shrike, wonderfully persuasive, a master of appalling rhetoric and ghastly deeds.
Wales, having deposed Papa-Lo to become the don of Copenhagen City and the most feared badman in Jamaica, has expanded his reach and turned his gang into a major international player in cocaine trafficking. On a visit to see his cocaine operations in New York in the mid-1980s, Wales is held up at gunpoint by an addict in front of a crack house. (The crack house is a part of Wales’s business, though Wales does not know this.) The addict snatches Wales’s money and then pulls the trigger. Out of the gun comes urine instead of a bullet. The assailant flees into the house, and Wales’s lieutenants, Weeper and Eubie, arrive just in time to provide the incensed Wales with guns. Wales, large, physically powerful, and “beastly,” enters the crack house with a firearm in each hand. What follows is an orgy of violence and cruelty that is the aesthetic peak of the novel. One is aware of being in the grip of a master of the lens like Emmanuel Lubezki (or, it must be said, in a first-person-shooter video game), as the camera tracks Wales going from room to room and floor to floor, hunting his quarry but also killing everyone he comes across, no matter what condition he finds them in. One unforgettable image is of a woman on her knees, holding a baby in one arm while she fellates a man for money to buy crack. The man is shot in the head during Wales’s rampage, and remains upright, his body leaning against a door. On the way out of the house some minutes later, the woman is still there, on her knees, still holding the baby, trying desperately to get the corpse to grow an erection because “if he don’t cum he not going pay her.”
This seems like a lapse, in which the creation Wales overwhelms the creator James. Maybe so, but the writing is magnificent, and if James is temporarily possessed, and if Wales’s loss of control is a surrogate for James’s own, it’s an astonishingly ecstatic possession.
The murders in the crack house engineer a fate not even Wales can escape by bringing him to the attention of American law enforcement, and thus bringing unwanted attention to the illicit dealings of forces more powerful than even he. The CIA? The cartels? We never find out who thinks it’s time to put a stop to Wales. The “faceless predators” work again.
The sprawl of the novel, with its grand motifs of history, fate, and violence, forms a sort of giant machinery, finely wrought and wondrous to behold. Yet, while we marvel at what James has accomplished, this great machinery creates a certain distance between the novel and the reader. The violence is not perpetrated by us or on us, most of the history is about an island we remain ignorant of and are prone to treat as exotic, and fate, if it is “real,” works beyond our control. We’re onlookers.
But in Wales’s killing spree, our distance from the action of the book collapses. The style is so cinematic and compact that it almost leaves one gasping for breath. Something very ugly has produced very pretty sentences indeed, and we are seduced, implicated, inducted into a range of experience in which we must shudder. And the rest of A Brief History feels different after this scene; we no longer read in awe but in empathy, even at the last (and it is no small miracle) for Josey Wales himself. In the novel’s grotesque pageant of blood we find not necessarily an image of ourselves but an expansion of ourselves. We find our ability to imagine life has been enlarged, and our understanding of life has been increased; we find, in the words of Stevens, ourselves “more truly and more strange.”