A few weeks ago my parents asked us for reading recommendations. Specifically, they said, “so, who’s the greatest living English-language novelist I haven’t heard of?”
Because that’s the kind of question my parents ask. It’s not an easy one to answer, though.
Meanwhile, my mother loaned me a copy of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. She said she loved it, but I gave up less than halfway through. The constant asides and on-the-fly reinterpretations reminded me of David Foster Wallace, and not in a good way. The novelist and the narrator both seem to have an inability to simply be or mean something, replaced by obsession with the performance of being or meaning. My mother admits that she’s got a soft spot for “narcissistic young men who are enchanted with words,” which explains why she liked that book, and is probably also how she put up with having me for a teenaged son. But since I didn’t give birth to Ben Lerner’s protagonist, I don’t feel obligated to love him.
In other words, I don’t think Ben Lerner is the great novelist you’ve been missing.
Seven Killings spans thirty or so years in the history of Jamaica and the Jamaican diaspora, an attempted assassination of Bob Marley, political parties funding criminal street gangs, CIA involvement in foreign politics, the rise and fall of rock journalism, and the crack epidemic. Most of the characters are fictional, but a lot of the events happened, more or less &endash; the epigraph of the book is the Kingston saying If it don’t go so, it go near so.
These novels are not perfect little gems. They sprawl. They have more characters and more settings than are strictly necessary. You may need to consult your Urban Dictionary to make sure you know the difference between a batty man and a samfi man. But the style alone is worth the ride: the rapid code-switching as different people talk in different ways to each other, to themselves, and to strangers, is masterful. And beyond the style, James seems to have created an entirely believable window into the minds of dozens of people.
James does include the occasional ghost or inexplicable happening, and that will probably draw comparisons to García Márquez, because tropical climate and the spirit world always do. It’s not an unfair comparison, because there’s a hallucinatory sort of quality to some of these scenes, but his work isn’t just some dreadlocked version of magical realism. It’s an entirely different animal, and it’s amazing.