The Short Version: In 1976, gunmen attempted to assassinate Bob Marley on the eve of the great Smile Jamaica Concert. The novel begins the day before the assassination attempt and then leaps forward over nearly 20 ensuing years between Jamaica, Miami, and New York City – painting a rich portrait of crime, drugs, violence, journalism, CIA spooks, and music.
The Review: A Brief History is one of those stories that isn’t about anything so much as it is about the world we’ve lived in. There are, ostensibly, three main characters – but their stories are only meant to illustrate the grander story of a specific time and place (or, really, times and places). The same goes for the dozens of supporting characters who flit through the pages of the book like ghosts – including one who is, in fact, a ghost. There are inter-character plot points as well as larger plots like the one that revolves around the Singer, but to say that there’s a plot to this book is like saying that the new D’Angelo record is just a funk record: you miss the larger, more beautiful aspects of the piece.
In an excellent interview with Guernica Magazine, Marlon James describes this book as being like a double album and that’s actually the best possible way to describe it. It’s big, it’s messy, it could almost certainly have been shorter but actually making any shorter would’ve compromised the oft-sneered-at idea of “artistic vision”. You wouldn’t’ve been able to get the exceptional novel here without the excess – it’s all wrapped up together.
Disc One, if we can continue the metaphor, is set on December 2nd and 3rd, 1976 – the 36 or so hours leading up to and the immediate aftermath of the attempted hit on Bob Marley, known only as the Singer throughout the novel (except one notable moment where he’s referred to as Bob). We’re in Kingston, riding a carousel of characters ranging from a nearly-washed-up Rolling Stone reporter, a former one-night-stand of Marley’s, a gang leader and his number two, as well as an assorted bunch of thugs and CIA spooks. Everything happens pretty quickly at this point, even as it lasts for nearly the first third of the novel; it’s hard to get a read on who is doing what and why, mainly because a lot of people don’t know for themselves. The CIA is there, messing around as it has been wont to do since I guess the end of WWII, and there’s definitely some shady backroom politicking going on – but anybody looking for James to be sticking the blame on the US government will come away lacking. Not to say they weren’t a part of it, because they definitely were – funnelling guns and drugs and money and power into the island – but this feels like a localized story. The gangs would’ve been there with or without US intervention.
It’s hard to pick a most interesting character (or even to talk about anybody individually because everything feels so damn tied up together) but Josey Wales, Papa-Lo’s number two in Copenhagen City (one of the slums of Kingston), might take the cake. He’s intelligent, ruthless, and the man who nearly killed the Singer. And while he doesn’t change all that much over the course of the novel (whereas Nina and Alex, the other two ‘main’-ish characters, definitely do), he’s a captivating presence. But saying he’s my favorite or the most interesting does a disservice to somebody like Weeper, a gay character in a time and place when gay men were at an immense disadvantage (e.g. would probably be killed). Each and every character who gets a chapter to themselves comes off as a unique, fully-formed person and even if you don’t like them (Bam-Bam and Demus, for example), you can’t help but find their experience authentic.
In fact, those two who I just said I didn’t like: they’re the ones who we ride with during the assassination attempt. And the actual chapter about the shooting is written in free-verse. There’s another chapter right around that moment that’s written as essentially one long coke-crazed sentence. James is pulling out all the tricks here but he’s deploying them with skill: they end up aiding the storytelling, making the characters seem that much more realistic, making the experience of the story that much more realistic as well. After all, how often do you, in your own real life, go through a pivotal adrenaline-heavy moment and feel that your experience was ordinary normal prose? No, things shift! It feels, sounds, looks, flows differently. And James captures that.
He also captures voices terribly well and I’ve seen that this has caused some consternation amongst some readers (looking at you, ToB15 readers). And I have to say that while the patois can be heavy at times and certainly it takes some work to get into it… fuck you if you have a problem with reading something that’s not ordinary unadulterated English. Seriously. People speak differently all around the world and there’s an implied cultural disparagement and/or racism in saying that you couldn’t finish this book because you couldn’t handle the patois. Just like with anything else – Shakespeare, for heaven’s sake – if you put in the time, it will get easier. And it does, throughout this book. Not only that, you get to track how the voices change from ’76 to ’91 (well, those who make it all the way through – plenty of folks die and several others drop out of the telling) and see how our world has changed as globalization has gotten more pervasive.
Speaking of death. The title of the book implies that there are seven killings here (I won’t go into the actual meaning of the title as it only comes up near the end) and it should be stated: there are way, way, way more than seven killings in this book. I didn’t try to keep an accurate count of the bloodshed but I’d say that it’s easily well over a hundred bodies. The violence is never shied from, although James does not (often) make it too explicit. Still, this is a violent book and that can be tough to stomach at times. We get it right from the start too, with a ghost talking about how he’s dead and how his body looked at the moment of death – and it doesn’t stop until the end, when a burned body is described in similar detail. In between, we see tons of people shot in Kingston and then, as the plot moves to Miami and New York, plenty of people shot, stabbed, maimed, messed-up-on-drugs, etc. It is not a pretty story.
Although there are moments of beauty, almost unbearable beauty. When Dorcas Palmer, in section 4 (this is on Disc Two, now), takes off with her old-man charge… when Nina remembers her night with the Singer… when any one of the young violent men recalls a moment of simplicity and stillness… James has a magical way about his writing and when, in Section 5, the voice shifts from named chapters into number ones, we still know who’s talking without even having to try. That there is a magic trick too and he pulls it off with aplomb. That’s sort of how I feel about the whole book, to be honest.
Rating: 5 out of 5. As I’ve said many times before, I’m a sucker for a big sprawling novel (see: Wolf Hall, The Corrections, The Goldfinch, etc) and James delivers with style. There’s a list of characters in the front of the book that spans over three pages – and their voices are as polyphonic as a real-world assemblage might be. While the pivotal moment in the novel is ostensibly the attempt on the Singer’s life (a shooting that’s still shrouded in mystery to this day) – and while that moment and the relationship between the folks who know about it (Nina/Alex/Josey) defines a lot of the near-interactions – the novel is really just about a slice of the world over the course of fifteen years. A slice that I’ve never visited before, not in real life and not really in literature. James drops this novel like a double album full of life and all its messiness. It might not be for everyone and it can be a struggle at times – but the fullness and vividness of the final picture is one that ranks right up there with some of the best.