Sunday, July 03, 2016

Marlon James knows the difference between adjectives and nouns

I'm still loving Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings 232 pages in, not least because in a passage meant to make fun of bad, overheated writing, a character singles out the phrase "unending vortex of ugly" for special scorn. James knows the difference between adjectives and nouns. He also knows that that piece of poolside furniture on which people stretch out and relax at this time of year is a chaise longue, not a chaise lounge or a chase lounge.

On the other hand, he does have a character think that someone has "another fucking thing coming." The expression is "another think coming," not "thing." But James has two possible outs: One of the book's delights is the multiplicity of its narrative voices, and many of the characters, including this one, do not speak the King's English. The other is that the book is so good that one such lapse, if it is that, doesn't bother me.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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30 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

I have to admit that I have never heard anyone say "another think coming", even if, as I now learn, it was the original expression. Of course, someone may have said it, but I would still have heard it as 'thing', as with the hard c after, it would be hard to distinguish think from thing.

July 04, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't think I've heard anyone say it either way, think or thing. I see the expression in writing, and it has always sounded to me like one of those snappy put-downs from some time in the middle of there last century. Further, I suspect that its retreat from speech into written use accounts for its alteration or, as I would have it, its misuse. "Think" has no currency as a noun, if it ever did, so it's no surprise that a false etymology would evolve that accounts for a usage more in step with current usage. That, in turn, raises the always interesting question of when one person's mistake becomes another person's example of language change.

July 04, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

More to the point, I have read a further 160 or so pages in Marlon James, and I remain impressed. I recommend the book if you have not yet read it.

July 04, 2016  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

And he likes jalapenos in his scrambled eggs which bespeaks of a zest for life early in the morning.

July 04, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, I saw your recollection somewhere that you saw him over breakfast at a festival and could bring yourself only to ask what he likes his eggs for breakfast.

The book does contain an observation or two about spicy Jamaican cuisine. Maybe the jalapeños are a reminder of home for him during cold Minnesota winters.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: I know you thought highly of A Brief History of Seven Killings, and your love and respect for A Cold Six Thousand is known to all. James' book naturally reminds me a big Ellroy's in its scope, and its multiple point of view characters.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Both, of course, are tremendously ambitious. And both are big grand great books.

Ellroy, James is bolder stylistically but its early days for Marlon James...

Both must try a bit harder with their female characters though i feel....

July 05, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ellroy is bolder stylistically than just about everybody, but James does a fine job of varying characters's narrative voices. That's the first thing I noticed. And the jokes about rock and roll songs are dead on and very funny.

Interesting remark about female characters. A Brief History ... is as male-centered a fictional world as any I can think of. Think of those slang expressions that run through the novel like a connecting thread. I also suspect that deep down Ellroy might agree with you, and also that he would never admit it.

You called Kay Lake the weakest of the four protagonists in Perfidia. You may also recall that the character has busts of Beethoven and Martin Luther in her apartment. I'd call that a not so subtle clue that Ellroy felt some special attachment to the character. Ellroy provided corroborating evidence when I asked him about that attachment, and he called Kay Lake his greatest fictional creation.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Because I happen to be reading it right now, I can think of a male-centric book that might be more so than this one. Moby Dick has as far as I can tell one or maybe two female characters, who are left far far behind in the early pages. Of course, it's maybe not so much male-centric as whale-centric.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Is Moby Dick a male whale?

I suppose it would be hard to work women into a story that takes place at sea.

I wonder if Marlon James' earlier novel The Book of Night Women forms one half of a set of make/female bookends with A Brief History of Seven Killings. As it happens that novel's third part, which I have just begun reading, opens with a section narrated by a female character who had not previously appeared. The section takes place in New York after two major divisions of the books set in Jamaica. I will keep this discussion in mind as I continue my reading.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Since I'm almost at the end of the book and they have yet to actually encounter Moby, I am not sure we will ever definitively know that.

I do have to say that the little world of the Pequod doesn't feel incomplete without women. It doesn't seem misogynist or anything. There is one scene where it's discovered that the owner's sister has smuggled aboard some ginger water, which she mistakenly hopes the sailors will drink instead of sterner stuff, but Melville doesn't really ridicule her for that mistaken optimism. Or maybe only a little.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ginger water sounds good. Of course, I drank gin and ginger for a while because that's that the Continental Op orders when he finds Paddy the Mex at Jean Larrouy's dive in Hammett's story "The Big Knockover," so I am predisposed to favor ginger.

I'll keep Adrian's comments in mind as I read. For now, I would say that they're more pertinent to Ellroy's book because Kay Lake is given fully equal status with the novel's three male protagonists. Marlon James' book, on the other hand, at least through its first two-thirds or so, us so male-centered that a strong, central female character might almost seem an intrusion.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Well, it's "tepid" ginger water, and it's offered to Queequeg after he has just stood on the back of a dead whale, trying to get a hook into the flesh, while sharks roil the water around him. You can see why he might crave stronger stuff after mission completed. I think more than being a typical female, "Aunt Charity" is meant to stand in for all of landlubbers who have no idea of the hazard the whalers undertake.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, do you know offhand if A Brief History of Seven Killings received any attention in crime fiction circles? I ask because it seems closer to what I think of as a crime novel than does Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, another much-honored literary novel, which also won an Edgar Award this year.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: James' hard-edged Kingston characters might respond "What the 'rascloth is this gingah water fuckery?" to such an offer.

I should note than in 440 pages (so far) largely narrated by characters speaking in Jamaican patois, the novel only once uses the word "mon," and then only to make fun of people who try to sound Jamaican. This book has many small delights in addition to its large ones.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Well I thought it was very much a genre piece, but I appear to have been in the minority. Everyone else called it LITERATURE.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Queequeg is too genial for that, although many of the other characters are not. It does sound like interesting language, though.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I'm surprised by how easily the patois has gone down with me. That's probably due in part to the use of certain words and insults that act as a kind of unifying glue, to the absence of cliches, and by his willingness to have characters occasionally make fun of those cliches and of precisely those stereotypes that form many readers
ideas' of Jamaicanness.

James is one more author writing compelling fiction from abroad about his home country.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: It will not surprise you to know that the novel pokes occasional fn at the idea of "the real Jamaica," but without going over the top into pot shots and easy targets.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Everything I know about Jamaican English comes from watching British television, which is to say, not much. Although I did see a play while I was in London some years ago which was written by a Jamaican, so some of that was probably more authentic.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That would mean you know more about Jamaican English than I do, or at least did before I started reading A Brief History .... A key meeting referred to in the novel happened in London. Who knows? Some important people may have been in the audience with you.

(One of the people at that meeting, which I don't know was a real or a fictional event, was Bob Marley, referred to throughout the novel, as "the Singer.")

July 05, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Actually, there may well have been some important people in the audience with me, as it had started at the National Theatre I think, and moved to the West End because it was very popular. The audience was unusual, at least to me, as it seemed to be filled with professional class non-white people. Perhaps of Jamaican ancestry themselves, but I don't know that.

I just had a quick look and I believe it was called Elmina's Kitchen. It looks like it wasn't specifically Jamaican but West Indian.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

When did the production happen? In the novel, Bob Marley meets with rival political gangsters in London, where he has fled after an assassination attempt in 1976. The assassination attempt is real; I don't know how closely Marlon Jame' novel sticks to real events.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

It was about ten years ago, so I don't think it fits the criteria.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: I try to stay out of the genre/literature discussion, especially since my local Barnes & Noble shelves James Ellroy in mystery and Lee Child in fiction and literature. That and other decisions appear to have been made either at random or because the company can no longer afford to pay staff to shelve the books.

But if The Sympathizer, which I liked but whose closest approach to crime is its plausible interpretation as en espionage story, can be considered a crime novel, A Brief History ... is decidedly a crime novel. It could even borrow, as at least one other crime novel did, the subtitle that Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö gave their Martin Beck series: "The Story of a Crime."

But who says every reader, every critic, every reviewer, and every literature or crime fiction organization must see such distinctions in the same way?

July 05, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: You're probably right. Closer to the time, I had a friend at college who wrote a senior thesis about Jamaican politics. I wonder how much the events James portrays and alludes to in the book had seeped their way into his consciousness.

Publishers' material on the back cover of my edition of the novel suggests that "little was officially was released" about the shooters, so the book may be James' imagining of what might had happened. Quite naturally. the CIA figures in the book, and James does a nice job with one of the agents in particular.

I like this book.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Yes, I was interested in the book before, but now I am intrigued.

July 05, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspect you'll like it, though I hope I have not raised your expectations too high. I don't know if I'll write a review of the novel once I've finished reading it, but I might put up a series of thematic posts, each about a different aspect of the book that I liked.

July 06, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Well, no one but me bears any responsibility for anything I decide to read. And apart from a few exceptions, I'm pretty open to books of whatever stripe.

July 06, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The latest aspect of the book to impress me is the slight alteration of the way Jamaican characters speak after they've been in New York awhile. That's a nice touch.

July 06, 2016  

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