When asked, Marlon James is hard-pressed to name his favorite story. It’s admittedly a nearly impossible request to make of anyone, and surely more so of a novelist, whose trade relies so deeply on both intake and telling, however tangled, of tales. Unable to name just one, James improvised.
“My favorite stories usually tend to be stories about voyages, whether it’s The Odyssey or it’s ‘Sinbad’ or it’s Huckleberry Finn,” he said. “If John Gardner is right and there are only two kinds of stories, ‘a stranger comes to town’ or ‘people go on a trip,’ then I’m definitely into the ‘people go on a trip’ kind of stories. I’ve always liked journeys, journeys where people meet sea monsters, or human monsters. There’s something about people leaving everything they know and going into what they don’t know where you actually learn a lot about people.”
Pondering the significance of the journey, be it a principled quest or spiritual pilgrimage or merely a pleasant jaunt, is a perennial human occupation. And this week marks the publication, by Riverhead Books, of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first book in James’s Dark Star trilogy—a decidedly non-European medieval fantasy appropriately billed as an “African Game of Thrones” and, more recently, racking up comparisons to last year’s Marvel superhero blockbuster Black Panther—which fits into a long tradition of stories built around a great voyage, even as it is unafraid to challenge the conventions of that tradition.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is, in essence, the tale of a ragtag group of mercenaries seeking a missing boy who might be the heir to the throne of an empire spanning a large stretch of a fantastic medieval Africa. It is narrated by a man known only as Tracker, who is said to “have a nose”; his extraordinary sense of smell lets him track nearly anyone whose scent he has ever sniffed. Tracker and his on-and-off allies—among whom are a leopard who can shape-shift into a man’s body and back, a small giant, a Moon Witch, and an intelligent water buffalo—follow the boy from city to city, through stretches of dangerous, often mystical wilderness. Their hope is to bring him back alive, or to at least bring back news of his demise.
Many pieces of the novel’s plot will feel as familiar to readers of the Icelandic sagas or the Epic of Gilgamesh or Arthurian legend as it will to fans of speculative fiction properties from the likes of George R.R. Martin, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George Lucas, as they should. This is a hero’s journey, after all, even if its protagonist might not always seem heroic, and if the mythologist Joseph Campbell had been alive to read it, he’d be hard-pressed to disagree. Yet some might feel quite different, rooted as they are in settings and cultures that many, if not most, American readers, who remain unfortunately accustomed to fantasies set primarily in worlds of whiteness, have rarely, if ever, encountered.
Adding to this sense of newness is an intricacy James’s novels have become famous for sporting. For starters, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is only one of three books which will each tell the same overarching story from three separate perspectives, a technique evoking celebrated Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s seminal short story “In a Grove” and, more famously internationally, its film adaptation by Akira Kurosawa, Rashōmon. As such, it is an investigation into truth, and the more each “truth” the novel and its characters bear is held to the light, the slipperier or knottier (or both) it becomes. As James writes, truth is “a shifting, slithering thing.”
This proves to be the case from the get-go. “The child is dead,” reads the book’s first line. “There is nothing left to know.” What follows is…everything left to know. It proves true too in James’s pyrotechnic language, often so elliptical as to feel intoxicatingly dizzying.
It proves true even in the novel’s creation, it seems. The text in advance reading copies was markedly different from what was in final copies of the book, as James made significant changes to the story following the printing of the galley. (Some of those changes, he said, involved adding some 15,000 words to imbue its women characters, and their stories, with more depth.)
When James first began work on the book, the story started as a “stranger comes to town” narrative before changing its course. He starts writing characters first, “which can be very frustrating, because I don’t know what their story is.” The characters, he said, “just won’t leave my head alone.” Eventually, though, the story comes. “It’s always important to me, when I’m writing a book, that these characters have a pre-novel life,” he said. “When I figured out why these characters were here and what mystery they had to solve, I knew they would leave home and everything they knew. But I didn’t know when I started it.”
At first, James also did not know that Tracker would become its main character. And, in the next book, he won’t be. That novel will hold someone else’s story—that of the Moon Witch, Sogolon.
“When I really started to think of this novel and how much I wanted it to divert from what I usually read in all the fantasy books I like, Tracker just came to the fore,” James said. “For want of a better way of phrasing it, I didn’t want to write a fantasy novel about important people. I didn’t want to write a fantasy novel starring nobles and kings, although they all end up in it. No, I wanted it to start in the street.”
That’s a common theme in James’s work, and exemplary, he said, of his writing process. Often, he will actively turn his focus toward a character he “hadn’t thought twice about” and, as he puts it, “look at everything I have and do the opposite or the reverse or pick the least important character.” As an analogy, he mentions photos of basketball players doing a slam dunk: “I always wonder, who’s that guy way off in a corner who was frowning at it? Who’s the bit player in the great shot? I want to know their story. That’s always happened to me. When I’m starting something, it’s the people in the margins that I notice over in the corner of my eye.”
James lives alternately in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he teaches at Macalester College, and an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but also keeps an office in the attic of Camp Cedar Pines, author John Wray’s brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which Wray has turned into something of a writers colony. It’s fairly spare, with an elliptical in the corner next to a blocky gray couch and a desk in the center of the room facing a wide glass window. As with most writers’ offices, it’s filled with stories, which is to say it’s filled with books.
Next to James’s desk, a single-volume version of Amos Tutuola’s novels The Palm Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts lies on the floor, and a stack nearby houses Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents and two academic books from 5 Continents Editions’ Visions of Africa series, Arthur P. Bourgeois’s Yaka and David A. Binkley and Patricia Darish’s Kuba. In another pile near the desk, the Icelandic Elder Edda, the Saga of the Volsungs, and Beowulf sit atop William Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Fran Ross’s novel Oreo, and two more scholarly texts, Brian M. Fagan and Roland Oliver’s Africa in the Iron Age and Richard W. Hull’s African Cities and Towns Before European Conquest, both published by white scholars in the 1970s.
The solitary nature of a writer’s office is strange to James, despite having a room dedicated to writing in each of his homes and this office at Cedar Pines—which, sitting as it does down the hall and above the quarters of a number of other writers, does allow for a little bit more company. Growing up in Jamaica, James said, he was surrounded by the noise of his family and community, and it was in that environment that he first learned to work. (It does not hurt that James is as insatiable a music listener as he is a reader; he mentions Alice Coltrane and Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis’s acid jazz albums, and the kora music of Toumani Diabaté, among many others, as being influential while he wrote this book.)
The novel itself replicates that noise, filled as it is with a motley of characters carrying their own passions, missions, fights to fight, sex to have, and tales to tell. The cities in Black Leopard, Red Wolf bustle, but so do the riverlands and the bush and the jungles—with humans, but also with giants, shapeshifters, demons, vampires with the power of lightning, bush fairies, merpeople, river spirits, gremlins, trolls, and flesh-eating monsters.
While James’s portrayal of mythological beings is distinctly African, the majority of these creatures appear in folklores all across the world. In a way, this allows the novel, which is such a paean to African history and culture and folklore, to double as an exhortation to fantasy readers: be drawn in by what is similar, and stay for what is unique. Or: Don’t stop at Tolkien and the Odyssey. Read Marlon James and the tale of Mansa Musa, The Lion of Mali, too.
The difficulty, as James makes clear, is that many stories of African peoples have only been available in the American and European markets in texts aimed at academia. Their authors, translators, and editors, almost invariably, are white academics. One major result of this is a lack of public awareness that leads to a perception of an inferiority of those stories, that James says just is not the case.
“Looking at the most recent translation projects of African epics, there’s been some really good work that’s been done,” James said. “The issue with a lot of those translations is that they weren’t translated by poets. They were translated for the academy. Which will lead people to think that these stories, these epics, are inferior to, say, the Icelandic sagas. No they’re not. I’ll bet anything the Odyssey wasn’t shit until a poet translated it.”
Until, that is, a poet retold its story. But with Black Leopard, Red Wolf, there’s no need to wait for the right translator. James is the teller, and Tracker, and Sogolon, and so many others. He, and they, have got a journey right here.
This profile was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.
“The first section of the book inevitably ends up taking on a Rashomon-ic quality, as Sotatsu’s father, mother, brother and sister all get their say about what transpired during his time in prison, along with a prison guard who observed him. But [Jesse] Ball doesn’t let them fall into the he said-she said realm of one-note characters — these are fully fleshed-out people, whose thoughts, emotions and agendas are as real (and sometimes as contradictory) as your own.” On Silence Once Begun.
In December 2009, while home for the holidays in Meridian, MS, the town where Barry Hannah was born, I had a sudden feeling he was going to die soon. The feeling did not cause me to grieve in advance for one of my favorite writers. It caused me to buy a used copy of his out-of-print novel Nightwatchmen on Amazon before his death jacked up the price.
Barry Hannah sometimes jokingly referred to the book in third-person as “Barry Hannah’s ‘lost’ novel.” Published by Viking in 1973, Nightwatchmen was widely disparaged by critics, sold poorly, and, at the author’s wish, has never been back in print. That Hannah died two months after I bought a copy — his poor health was widely known, which is to say, my premonition wasn’t inexplicable — kept me from reading Nightwatchmen until recently. Over the past few years I preferred to know there was still one of his novels I could experience for the first time.
Now that I have read it, I’m glad I waited. Unobstructed by the pall of his death, it is easier to see the connection Hannah’s second book has with many of those that followed, the light it casts on what was to come.
Part academic satire and part murder mystery, Nightwatchmen is set at the fictional Southwestern Mississippi University, which, according to the jacket copy, “is under siege by the Absurd.” Someone known as The Knocker is terrorizing campus. This individual sneaks up behind people and conks them on the back of their heads. “He took no money from them. He took no tests or materials,” says one character of the situation. “He knocked out two women. He did not molest these women, either of them; just let them lie unconscious.” Matters escalate when two night watchmen are killed, their heads left in toilet bowls, badges rammed into each of their gaping mouths. No one knows if the person going around knocking heads is the same person going around cutting them off.
A makeshift investigation into the series of crimes is conducted by a man named Thorpe Trove, the owner of a mansion that serves as a boarding house for many graduate students from the school. Sympathetic confidant, avuncular intermediary, and semi-passive observer, Trove is to his tenants what Edna Garrett was to Natalie, Jo, Blair, and Tootie on The Facts of Life. His oddball narration frames this oddball book. “I have hair like a ball of dead orange leaves, purplish prescription glasses which I wear year round, and, I do fear, a sweet and clever look.” Scattered throughout his narration, though, are tape recordings Trove makes of people associated with the crimes, part of his effort to catch The Knocker and/or The Killer. Those recordings become miniature character studies, as seen in this passage spoken by a graduate student:
One of these days I will meet a girl with a sunburned navel who will see me burning up my birth certificate and my Ph.D. degree in a small fire on the beach and she will be enchanted by this, because it will have great style, and she will throw in her ticket with me, and we will make the present burn, my friends; we will eat one another like seafood.
The taped narratives provide little help in finding the culprit. Toward the end of the book, however, after Hurricane Camille destroys parts of campus as well as Thorpe Trove’s mansion, the mystery of the knocking and killing recedes in importance compared to how the characters in Nightwatchmen, following the disaster, continue on with their lives.
If the novel, judging by such a plot summary, sounds crazy, that only means you are not. Barry Hannah, after all, was someone who drunkenly shot an arrow through the door of his wife’s house during their separation, who dried out in Alabama’s state asylum, who, on his release, immediately returned with a carton of cigarettes for his fellow inmates. Guy like that knows from crazy.
The misbehavior that contributed to Hannah’s renown, his dipsomania and his irascibility, his prurience and his hoplophilia, is as well remembered as Nightwatchmen is forgotten. “I sat a princedom of literary fame,” he once wrote. “Then turned beast and threw it all away.” Nonetheless not enough has been made of how often people say much has been made of the Bad Barry. He was a man whose life was so colorful — shooting holes in the floorboard of his car, pulling a gun on a classroom of students — that, when people tell those stories, they don’t preface them with, “Tell me if you’ve heard this one,” but rather something more along the lines of, “Even though I know you’ve heard this one, it’s so good I’m going to tell it to you anyway.”
A similar concept applies to his fiction. People don’t recommend Barry Hannah. They simply say, “Airships,” and wait for the other person to nod and repeat the title as confirmation that they, too, have read Airships and loved it.
During the time he worked on his second novel Hannah was in a liminal state as an artist and as a person. His writing was coming together as his marriage was falling apart. Nightwatchmen is therefore both artistically and personally a transitional work for Hannah. Its borderline campy plot and rotating cast of narrators reveal it as a juncture in more than chronology between its predecessor and successor. The former, Geronimo Rex, is a traditional bildungsroman that, albeit episodic, centers on one protagonist, while the latter, Airships, is collection of unhinged short stories with fragmented, disjunctive points of view. Moreover, the tape recordings in Nightwatchmen are a physical incarnation of what would become a metaphysical approach in Hannah’s fourth book, Ray: the representation of many different times and many different voices within a singular moment.
Even at the sentence level Nightwatchmen displays the shift in Hannah toward polyphonic delirium. “I have an intuition that genius is going to hit my brain like a comet if I can wait just a few more years,” says one character, using language indicative of the author’s previous work, to which another character, using language indicative of the author’s future work, responds, “When it does could I maybe stand nearby and eat some of the raw light?”
One of the narrators in Nightwatchmen is Harriman Monroe, a drunken, ribald poet who, when asked what he writes about, gives an answer applicable to Hannah’s own work. “This happy disease my life. This hagridden bathroom epic. What I can balance on my peniscycle.” Monroe was formerly the protagonist of Geronimo Rex. Such a technique is typical of Hannah. In the daisy chain of his career he often hooked the bloom of a new book through stem of a past one. The novel The Tennis Handsome is umbilically tied to the stories “Return to Return” and “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet,” for example, as is Yonder Stands Your Orphan to “Water Liars,” “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail,” and “High-Water Railers.”
Still, despite the presence of Monroe in Nightwatchmen, Hannah invented a wholly new and different protagonist in Thorpe Trove. Consider his name. The word “trove” is derived from “treasure trove,” which in turn derives from the Anglo-French tresor trové, or “found treasure.” This character so lost in life has a name that means found.
At the time he was writing the novel Hannah could have been considered lost as well. Early on in Nightwatchmen Trove visits a library:
There were only two rows, one marked F and the other O. I asked about this and the librarian officer — who was reeking with gin — told me F was for Fuck Books and the O was for Other. I asked him which he would recommend. He said one was for animals and the other for intellectuals. I would have to choose for myself. It was a hard choice because I didn’t know myself — which one I really was.
Hannah was facing a similar choice in his work. Fuck Book or Other? Animal or intellectual? To find himself as a writer he had to finish what is now a lost book.
Although Nightwatchmen isn’t one of Hannah’s best novels, it contains traces of them, the expansive and youthful qualities of Geronimo Rex and the elegiac qualities of Hey Jack! and Boomerang, with just enough of Ray’s screwball nihilism to leaven the mix. This novel can be seen as the terroir, all the subsequent ones its varietals. With its blend of parody and pulp, Nightwatchmen — a game of Clue gone collegiate, Porky’s meets Rashomon, a chicken-fried Agatha Christie whodunit — foreshadows the use of tropes from the western genre in Never Die. Its large cast of characters predates the same feature in Yonder Stands Your Orphan. Its widespread array of events predates the same feature in The Tennis Handsome.
Those features are unfortunately the least successful ones in the book. Its cast of characters is a bit too large. The purpose of its use of genre tropes remains too much in flux. Its array of events is a bit too widespread.
Even Hannah agreed. In an interview titled “Bat Out of Hell,” with the calm bemusement typical of him when looking back at his stormy years, he said, “I’d like to rewrite my second book, Nightwatchmen, because I wrote it under hurried circumstance on the heels of my first book. It had no editing, and with just a few changes on the order of less equals more it could be a fine book.” Such regrets notwithstanding, that the book was a failure isn’t as important, I believe, so much as that it was a necessary failure, one that deserves to be read.
Barry Hannah died of a heart attack on March 1, 2010. Ever since that day, I’ve wondered how Hannah would have felt about whatever dimwit, half-wit, or nitwit who, after paying more than $40 for a copy, might try to redeem a novel he himself disparaged. He probably would have had a good laugh.
Image via nndb.com
A confession – I haven’t read much about Australia. To be completely honest, I’m a hopelessly provincial reader – sticking mostly to the US, with only the occasional foray to Europe, Latin America, and Canada. I’m working on it, okay? This is all to say that I am incredibly lucky that Christos Tsiolkas landed on a panel I was moderating for the LA Times Festival of Books, as it put his tremendous novel The Slap before me in a pressing way.
The premise of The Slap, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Novel of Southeast Asia and Australia and is now longlisted for the Booker, is deceptively simple – at a suburban barbecue, a man slaps another couple’s child. The beauty of the novel is how that slap, that one moment, reverberates through the lives of the dozen or so people who witness it. The structure is remarkable for both its simplicity and its dexterity. As opposed to a Rashomon structure, in which each character tells their (differing) version of the events, Tsiolkas uses each chapter to further advance the story. But like Rashomon, each new character offers us a different perspective, not so much on what happened, but on what it means, for the characters themselves and for Australian society.
Make no mistake, The Slap is a social novel, a snapshot of the Australian middle class – prosperous, self-obsessed, and maybe a little bit complacent. Indeed, it’s one of the many miracles of this book that a small personal incident can reveal so much of a culture and a country. Like a highly erotic Cheever novel, The Slap skewers the middle class while giving them their humanity and even, at times, a bit of sympathy. The portrait Tsiolkas paints of Australia – richly diverse and yet mired in deep-seeded racism, prosperous but divided along subtle class lines – is endlessly fascinating. It is further evidence that I do, in fact, need to get out more.