Marlon James’ Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings is certainly not brief, but rather one of those ambitious Moby Dick-aping American novels aspiring to the American novel (even though it is set in Jamaica). Like Moby Dick, there is the plunge into the language and philosophy, in this case the crime world of the Jamaican ghetto. In this way, it is much like James Ellroy’s novels, with its knowing, seemingly insider knowledge of the crime world, its patois, its crooked philosophy. (Do criminals really philosophise so much about what they are doing?) In the manner of postmodernist novels, James is self-questioning about the task of the novelist, with one of his characters, a journalist who at times speaks for James, lamenting that it is impossible to properly describe or even photograph the wretchedness of the ghetto.
This wretchedness, and violence, is unremitting for pages upon pages. It is not a pleasant read, though one can admire and enjoy the enormity of James’ presentation of a distinct language and multiple voices, the cacophony and chaos of the ghetto and the narrative (which, incidentally, revolves around the real-life assassination attempt on Bob Marley). In the case of the multiple cast of characters, and also the journalist’s complaint, it is no coincidence that Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy is referenced, as Russell begins that book by arguing that despite our normal assumptions, reality is very hard to pin down descriptively, and that the more we observe, the more ambiguities come into play. This is perhaps also summarised, though in a kind of reverse, in the Jamaican proverb quoted in James’s book, ‘if it no go so, it go near so’, meaning, essentially, ‘it happened something like that’. This also, of course, summarises the novelist’s task of putting into novel form a real-life event, as James does.