Marlon James’s Brief History of Seven Killings

Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (OneWorld 2015)

1780746350.jpgI was reading A Brief History of Seven Killings in a cafe when I noticed that the young man at the next table was reading Oliver Twist, and the horrible thought occurred to me that Marlon James’s work might one day, like Dickens’s, be required reading in schools and universities. Assuming that its spectacular obscenity, violence and graphic sex won’t protect it from such a fate, I offer here, in lieu of a blog post, some possible essay questions:

  • ‘The book’s epigraph, “If it no go so, it go near so” implies a claim to historical truth. While the central event of the narrative, the attempted assassination of Bob Marley on 3 December 1976, is verifiable, the novel relies more on the tropes of US drugs-and-violence cinema and television than on historical research.’ Discuss.
  • James says in his acknowledgements: ‘I had a novel, and it was right in front of me all that time. Half-formed and fully formed characters, scenes out of place, hundreds of pages that needed sequence and purpose. A novel that would be driven only by voice.’ Is that an accurate description of the novel as it finally appeared? (Suggested answer: Far too modest, but kind of.)
  • ‘The novel is narrated by 12 different voices. Although most of them are Jamaican gunmen, they are brilliantly differentiated. At times, especially in the third of the book’s five sections, the sheer virtuosity of it becomes the point of the writing, and the narrative slows almost to a halt.’ Is this fair?  (Suggested answer: Yes, but the writing really is fabulous.)
  • What is the function of the many references to US popular culture? Does it differ with different characters? For example, a main gunman’s nom de guerre is Josey Wales and there are many other references to Clint Eastwood movies, while the only woman narrator refers several times to US television as a guide to how she is expected to behave. Is it necessary to be familiar with Dynasty and T. J. Hooker [whatever that is] to understand the novel?
  • Given that the book runs to nearly 700 pages, to what extent is the title ironic? Given that vastly more than seven people are killed, which are the seven referred to in the title?
  • The character known only as the Singer is definitely Bob Marley. Does the book make you want to (re)listen to all his music and read about his life? [Recommended answer: Yes]
  • Nina Burgess says in page 157: ‘The problem with a book is that you never know what it’s planning to do to you until you’re too far into it.’ Did this book tease the reader with other meta moments such as this? Were the many jibes at white men who think they know about Jamaica meant to prompt white readers of the book to check themselves for voyeuristic tendencies [or was that just me?]
  • We have become accustomed to some Hollywood movies’ preoccupation with penis size and certain sexual activities as easy metaphors for domination. Most of the characters here fall back on that rhetoric is a way that would be deadening if not for the Jamaican ‘bad chat’ elements. Does the one scene of tender sexual intimacy counterbalance this, or is it a token nod to alternative takes on sexuality?

There, that should do it.

Oh, another thing: One reason I read this book was that I had so enjoyed Andrea Levy’s Small Island, and wanted to read more from the Caribbean. Apart from the sheer exhilarating joy of the language in both, I can’t say they have much in common. But that could be the basis for one more essay question: compare and contrast.

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