Thursday, March 21, 2013

Not all the leopards are metaphorical...

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
by Kristopher Jansma

Look, I won’t claim there aren’t disappointments, but after decades of selecting books for myself, I’ve gotten pretty good at guessing what I’m going to like. And from the first time I heard even the briefest description of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, it was high on my must-read list. I mean, seriously, the title alone--somehow it just spoke to me. And I wasn’t disappointed.

But the odd thing is, when I read the jacket copy, the part that I really honed in on was about the rivalry between the two writers. And while certainly that is an element of the novel’s plot (such as it is), that’s not the part that I should have been paying attention to. No, it was phrases like “search for identity,” “web of lies,” and “exploration of the nature of truth and storytelling” that are really at the crux of Kristopher Jansma’s exciting debut novel.

Let’s back up… There have been some fantastic novels that blurred the lines between fact and fiction through a variety of narrative devices. In Life of Pi, Yann Martel opened the novel in direct address to readers, eventually becoming the character of The Writer. And when The Bridges of Madison County was published a few decades ago, so many readers wrote to the National Geographic believing the tale was true that they made a museum exhibit of the correspondence. I digress, but the opening of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards brought these examples to mind, because the first page after the table of contents says this: “If you believe that you are the author of this book, please contact Haslett & Grouse Publishers (New York, New York) at your first convenience."

Interesting. We move on, but that opening note is never quite forgotten.

And this tale begins, again, in direct address to readers in the form of an author’s note. It launches, “I’ve lost every book I’ve ever written.” And the narrator tells the tale of that first loss. You will learn of others along the way. The last line, incidentally, of that author’s note is this: “These stories all are true, but only somewhere else.” And this coming after not one, not two, but three separate epigraphs on the nature of truth. Interesting.

The novel’s first-person narrator seems earnest enough, but be prepared for sleight of hand—or whatever the literary equivalent might be. The storytelling here is unconventional, it’s meta-fictional, it’s challenging, it’s non-linear, it’s literary, and, oh yes, it is always interesting. Jansma’s characters are… Well, to be honest, they’re not all that likable when you get right down to it, but they’re well-drawn enough for familiarity to breed contempt. (And in the scheme of unlikable characters, these ones are not so unpleasant as to put you off from following their journey.) You’ll note that I did not describe them as “believable,” because there’s a heightened quality about the trio at the center of the tale, and the circumstances they find themselves in, as they chase and/or flee each other around the globe. Jansma isn’t trying to replicate reality. There is artifice throughout, and it’s very intentional.

His writing is fantastic! It’s read-aloud, eminently quotable, just a pleasure to absorb. Everything about this novel is stylish, stylized, and sophisticated. It’s also very funny. It’s gonzo, romantic, clever, and the sort of book to remind readers and writers both why they do what they do. In short, this is an exhilarating debut novel. My instincts were right on this time. Score one for me.

1 comment:

  1. I have not enjoyed a book this much in, literally, decades. And that is saying something because I read a LOT. We will hear more, hopefully MUCH more, from this young man.