Criticism & Features

Year 2014: 30 Books

Carolyn Kellogg on Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings”

By Carolyn Kellogg

In the days leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2014 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Carolyn Kellogg offers an appreciation of fiction finalist Marlon James' “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (Riverhead Books ).

Marlon James’ extraordinary novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings” is a breathtaking, explosive, explicit, profane, profound, multi-voiced story of violence and its reverberations.

Set in Jamaica and New York, the book takes place around the assassination attempt on Bob Marley, referred to only as The Singer, in 1976, and then traces what happens to the men involved and others collaterally involved. The story spans many years, and there are, as several reviewers have noted, quite a few more than seven killings.

Marley really did survive a shooting that year, and James uses the incident as a fulcrum for a many-threaded story for what might have happened. There are CIA agents enacting the Cold War battles on Jamaican soil; corrupt Jamaican politicians; gangsters who rule different factions of Kingston’s ghetto; drug dealers, foot soldiers, and a volatile woman whose life is upended after spending one night with The Singer.

“Truth keeps shifting,” James told me when I talked to him about the book for the LA Times. “Five, six stories, even contradictory stories, can exist at the same time and they're kind of all true and all false. There is no one story.”

Like  Don Delillo’s “Libra,” James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” spins a complex narrative around real events and people. Both books are less concerned with fact than they are fiction; both succeed at transforming history into works of art.

But James’ book reads like nothing else. “Learn this: Jail is the ghetto man university. Slam clik slam. Babylon come for me two years ago – is it two years yet? I try to not forget anytime Babylon encroach ‘pon the I.” That’s Papa-Lo, head of one of the ghetto gangs, philisophical, a bit weary, who narrates in a Jamaican patois that is both foreign and understandable. The book has its own linguistic universe, challenging, rich, and often filthy.

Although she is not a member of the NBCC, allow me to quote from the NY Times’ Michiko Kakutani, who wrote, “It’s epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex. It’s also raw, dense, violent, scalding, darkly comic, exhilarating and exhausting — a testament to Mr. James’s vaulting ambition and prodigious talent.”

Interview at the LA Times

Review by Michiko Kakutani in the NY Times

Review by Zachary Lazar in the NY Times

Review by John Freeman in the Boston Globe

Review by Rosecrans Baldwin at NPR

Review by John Domini in the Washington Post

Marlon James interviewed on Late Night with Seth Meyers