Hours away from the announcement of the Man Booker Prize. And many tensions at play as to who might win, who should win. I have not been quiet about my own preference. A Brief History of Seven Killings is my choice for the prize. If it does not take the prize, then I could still enjoy a major upset if Satin Island claims top honors. A choice from among the other four on the shortlist would not be satisfying.
Last month, I got to see Marlon James at the National Book Festival where he explained the origins of his novel. He may have only been six years old at the time of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976, but he was old enough to know that something was terribly wrong. Marley was considered untouchable, his home a sanctuary, and both of those "givens" were violated in the most shocking way. But who committed these violent acts and what happened to them? They seemingly disappeared. James commented,
"That's something that sparked me. I don't think I'm an historical novelist. What I do like writing about is things that history slipped over. Or things that sort of get sent to the ash pile of history."
James noted that the recent documentary on Marley spends only three minutes on the assassination attempt. The attempt was not openly discussed in Jamaica. It was spoken of mostly in rumors. James offers that a "lot of this book came out of gossip" rather than any common knowledge that arose out of his middle class existence, but the fear and uncertainty created by that violence haunted him. But that it took a long time before the language to engage that fear came to him.
"I was really trying to write a brief history. (laughing) But it went on and on and on. I was really trying to write a novella - a hard-boiled detective fiction novella about this gay hitman hired to kill this Jamaican guy but he can't focus because he can't believe his boyfriend won't return his calls."
He kept writing the characters that ultimately all end up in the book but kept reaching these "literary dead ends" with each novella-designed endeavor. When he told a friend, "I don't know who's story this is," she responded by asking him "What makes you sure its just one person's story?" James calls this his "Eureka!" moment, relates what lay in front of him to a Faulkner As I Lay Dying type experience, and confesses, "I was the last person to know I had a novel."
Perhaps the distinctness of the character voices arises from the way in which he focused on each initially as its own story. Or perhaps, as James suggested, because he just surrendered himself to each of the characters and let them go however far they needed to run, writing the "loosest" thing he had ever written and trusting in his editors to sort it out at the end. Maybe if we look deeply enough, we can see his literary influences at work here - James Ellroy, Virginia Woolf and Marguerite Duras. Perhaps it doesn't matter how he got there, just that he delivered something so powerful and distinctive. Rarely do I gush this much over contemporary fiction. But I cannot recommend this book highly enough. And I cannot justify one of the other five claiming the prize over it tomorrow.