Novel * Marlon James * Jamaica Is Fucked Up, Yo * 2014
Let me preface this article by proclaiming to all and sundry that I don’t know shit about Jamaica. I know the stereotypes, obviously, but it’s not a subject I’ve ever looked into. It’s never come up in any history class I’ve ever taken, outside of the occasional aside about colonialism. Oh, there’s that old Chris Rock bit about “resort Jamaica” and “stabbin’ Jamaica.” This astounding book is definitely about stabbin’ Jamaica, holy shit. I do not think I was prepared for what I was getting into when I randomly picked it up in Powell’s. This book is another attempt at pushing myself outside of my typical bullshit, and while it paid off I’m still kind of reeling from the experience. It’s not even the subject matter, not really. I’ve read my share of hyper-violent stories with lots of swears. I guess it’s not even the way James writes his story – it’s post-modern stream-of-consciousness told from a dizzying array of viewpoints, but it’s not like that’s a unique structure. I don’t think it’s the patois used throughout, although that does slow the reading experience down a bit. Like any dialect-heavy text, you get used to it. Plus it’s fun, you bombo r’asscloth pussyhole. Yeah, if that phrase bums you out maybe skip this one. It’s a shame, because you’d be missing out on a stunning novel.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is a bit of a misnomer, because way more than seven people bite it over the course of the narrative. This is a sprawling novel which takes place over the span of fifteen years. It is mostly a crime novel, thus the many killings. The centerpiece event of the book is the attempted killing of Bob Marley in his Jamaica studio by a vanload of would-be assassins in 1976. This is a true thing that happened, although it’s the first I’ve heard of it because prior to reading this book I could give the least amount of fucks possible about Bob Marley. All the more credit to Marlon James, then, for making an account of this event so totally compelling. Roughly the first half of the novel takes place during the day before and the day of the attempted murder. The viewpoints are a whirlwind of shifting perspective and narratives which get more fragmented and less coherent when things start popping off for real. There’s no true protagonist, but there are many, many characters. Quite a few of these get their own viewpoint chapters. From low-level gang members to high-level gang members to CIA agents to obnoxious hipster white guys the style and vocabulary are constantly shifting. It’s a lot to keep up with.
Jamaica in the 70’s was a fucking mess. Maybe it still is, I don’t know. After reading this there are approximately 422,000 places I’d rather go first. This is why novels like this provide a valuable service: it’s an account of a horrible place which is fascinating and horrifying at the same time. A Brief History doesn’t equivocate on this point, either. James is Jamaican, and his feelings about his home country are seemingly as conflicted as those of most of his characters. The native Jamaicans are all well aware that large swaths of their country is a festering shithole with no redeeming qualities, but there’s still a vibrant love of the place that keeps them there. Then you’ve got the outsiders, Americans in the CIA or reporter Alex Pierce who are there for one reason or another who have the same qualms, but the same confusing love of the island. Pierce in particular is super annoying. He’s one of these white douchebags who simultaneously believes he knows about “the real Jamaica” while still spouting clichés about it. He’s kind of the worst, which is saying something considering some of the sociopathic monsters running around in this story.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is impossible to encapsulate in a few paragraphs. It’s a major achievement, and it deserves the praise and awards and whatnot, but it’s not an easy read. Getting through this thing requires quite a bit form the reader, so it’s important to understand what you’re getting into. You’ve got to have a thick skin, because there are some gnarly scenes here, but you also need plenty of patience. Your reward is a thorough and visceral examination of a deeply flawed, deeply compelling country. You get to know some horribly fucked up characters, and even if you don’t necessarily sympathize with them they’re no less fascinating. I guess that’s it for disclaimers. It’s difficult to “spoil” a novel like this, because the story is so meandering and there are so many threads that pretty much every chapter is surprising in its own way. I’m going to talk about a few specific things anyway, because it’s kind of impossible to talk in generalities any longer.
A breezy scan through the Wikipedia article about Jamaica lays out bare just how hard Spain and England fucked this island over. Spain gets there and promptly cuts all the trees down and kills off the native population. Naturally. Then the British show up and kick them out, and the Spanish were all like “whatever it sucks here anyway.” So the Brits look around and think about sugarcane and import a bunch of African slaves and make it happen. A few centuries later, Jamaica declares independence and takes control of their own affairs. Of course, they’re left with a 400 year legacy of colonial oppression and not much else, so despite some optimism in the sixties, by the time A Brief History of Seven Killings takes place, the country is well and truly fucked. I am in no way qualified to talk to you about Jamaican history. Pretty much everything I know I learned from this book, but what this book does have to teach is a deeply unsettling look at the legacy of colonialism.
That’s all buried in subtext, though. This is not a Things Fall Apart situation, and the novel does not wear its stance on colonialism on its sleeve. However, by taking such an unflinching look at the extreme poverty of areas like Copenhagen City and Eight Lanes, there is an unspoken condemnation of the historical forces at work. The casual violence of these places are jarring and visceral. Christ, one of the first scenes of the book features a little boy hiding under a bed while a gang enforcer murders his father. Uh, “murder” undersells it. The killer forces the father to his knees and forces him to beg for his life by performing oral sex on him while he holds a gun to his head. Afterward he shoots him anyway. Then the kid’s mom. And everyone else is like, whatever, just another day in Jamdown or whatever and meanwhile the reader is thinking what the actual fuck is happening here?
Like I said, this is largely a novel about the criminal underground. There’s no real protagonist, but one of the more prominent characters is an upstart gang leader, Josey Wales. He’s a cold motherfucker whose top priority in life is “chatting good” and murdering anyone who gets in his way. Including Bob Marley. Josey is behind the murder attempt, in cahoots with the CIA for reasons that even now elude me. Jamaica was an area of interest at the time because of its proximity to Cuba, so they had a presence on the island, presumably to keep it from turning socialist. Each major Kingston gang represented their neighborhood, and the two main gangs repped for opposing political parties. At the time of the Marley near-miss, Josey Wales was the number two man in Copenhagen City under Papa-Lo. Their counterpart in their rival gang was a cat named Shotta Sherriff. About the time Marley was going to put on a big old concert for peace, there was going to be an election. The attempted murder had clear political undertones, since there was an attempt at a peace treaty between the rival gangs included with all the political maneuverings.
If all that sounds confusing, well, that’s how this book rolls. It swings wildly back and forth between just utterly disturbing violence and complicated political maneuvering. The latter is almost never explained, either. There’s very little exposition, because the book is written in a semi-stream-of-consciousness perspective from many, many characters. Some, like Nina Burgess and her sister, seemingly have little to do with the rest of the novel. There’s a lot of piecing together events that happen from snippets of thought from various people. Each section is also a specific moment of time, with the last three sections jumping in time quite a bit. By the end of the novel, most of the main players have moved to New York, and Josey Wales loses his shit and it’s like a scene from The Wire all of a sudden, and Jamaica itself takes a bit of a backseat to the Jamaican characters. But make no mistake, everyone here is a product of that messed-up little island. Pretty much everyone in the story has a nagging, compulsive love for the place, even if nobody has illusions about the post-colonial violence or the endless struggle against desperate poverty. You know, reading this over it’s clear that this novel might be a hard sell. Sometimes that’s the hallmark of an important piece of art, though. It’s pretty clear that A Brief History of Seven Killings is an important work. It’s just rough to get through.