The Man Booker fiction prize has always been open to English writing from Commonwealth nations, but until Marlon James’s nomination this year, no Jamaican writer had ever received the honor—welcome evidence that a newly eligible American market doesn’t seem to be crowding out contenders from the original pool. Tumultuous and overwhelming, A Brief History of Seven Killings would have been hard to overlook in any case. James’s novel has been compared to the imaginings of Quentin Tarantino, David Foster Wallace, and William Faulkner. And no wonder, given the violence, kaleidoscopic vitality, and stream-of-consciousness patois that fill its nearly 700 pages.
The 1976 attempt to assassinate Bob Marley serves as the book’s anchor, but to label A Brief History of Seven Killings a historical novel would be to miss its genre-blurring essence. In real life, Marley survived and the almost-killers’ motivations and identities sparked conspiracy theories. In the novel, the assassination inspires a dizzying epic, which encompasses Jamaican politics and American Cold-War policy, not to mention poverty, gang warfare, race, class, and international trade in crack cocaine. Marley, who is referred to only as the Singer throughout the book, serves as a somewhat paradoxical mythic force: He is the peace-preaching voice of the disenfranchised and at the same time the symbol of complicity with what the Rastafarians call “Babylon,” the corrupt system of power that includes politically motivated violence, American influence, and police brutality. In the chaotic sprawl of a story that the critics agree is—as Michiko Kakutani put it in The New York Times—both “exhilarating and exhausting,” James is interested above all in giving imaginative life to invented figures surrounding Marley.
“In creative writing, I teach that characters arise out of our need for them,” James wrote in a personal essay last March in The New York Times Magazine about leaving home to live an openly gay life in the U.S. (where he now teaches at Macalester College). By that, he evidently means to convey a sense of creative compulsion, as if characters should be conjured forth to satisfy some existential urge. That gut impulse certainly seems to have been the case in James’s own novel, his third. In an interview posted on the Man Booker website, he’s asked about his cast of some 75 characters: “What was your reasoning behind using such a crowd?” His answer: “That’s just it, reason had to go out the window! I had to get to the point where my inner critic stopped questioning my moves, because often I was moving without a second thought or even a first one. It was the riskiest thing I had ever done and reasoning had nothing to do with it.”