Like history, like even the history of one small island country, like even the partial history around a few small players on a tiny corner of the world’s stage, Marlon James’ symphonic novel is too much. Too big. Too brutal. Too confusing. Filled with too many voices and interwoven with too many connections. That’s why it works.
Still reeling at the end, I think of the incandescent brutality of Roberto Bolaño and the fever-pitched erudition of David Foster Wallace. I think of the pitiless, sometimes-political and sometimes-psychopathic violence of James Ellroy. The word “brief” in the title is simultaneously ironic and sincere: James’s book details only a few short periods of time centered around one of the smaller countries in the world, but the more he writes—and the more I read—the more we both know how much we don’t know and how much life (and death) goes undocumented and unexplained…and what a tragedy and a blessing that is.
Told through the eyes, and in the distinct voices of, more than 75 characters, ABHoSK is, artistically, a masterwork. The characters range from cruel, killer children who speak in a Jamaican/English patois to cynical CIA agents, from gangland leaders to journalists…and each is distinct and memorable. The long plot, which centers around the attempted assassination of The Singer (a fiction built on the real-world attempt on Bob Marley’s life) and what happens to each of the seven would-be assassins over the next 20 years, never loses its way except in the shaggy manner that life and history are characterized by everyone losing their way at least as often as their actions—and their consequences—make retrospective sense.
Incidentally, it’s no surprise that ABHoSK has been optioned by HBO—think The Wire meets Game of Thrones with all the potential, good and bad, that implies—and I’m intensely curious how they will manage (corral? reduce? sensationalize?) this epic book for the small screen.