In its closing chapters, the title of A Brief History of Seven Killings is explained. A journalist has written a seven-part feature for The New Yorker on victims of a murderous rampage in a crack house in Brooklyn in the 80s: “A Brief History of Seven Killings”. When he reads aloud from his account, it is harshly criticized by a man holding him at gunpoint:
–Jesus Christ, white boy, you really write like that? he says.
–I wrote what?
–That. You just compare one of the holiest places in the world to a crack house. You want we stable the passage to your chest and dump you off at Nation of Islam.
–I didn’t mean to–
–You didn’t think. I should make one of them shoot you just for that. Fucking idiot. Fucking irresponsible.
And here then is one way of thinking about the massive novel: who gets to tell a story? who possesses that story?
The questions are easy to answer in the particular circumstance: not him. But more generally, the questions point in the wrong direction for the novel: it is a question that Faulkner may have asked, and Faulkner is cited by Marlon James in the acknowledgements: “Also, when did I last read As I Lay Dying?” It doesn’t matter, because though A Brief History is narrated from the perspectives of many characters, including a dead man, it lacks a center that Faulkner often possesses: an event of immense significance, which cannot be recovered with certainty or agreement, but which is assumed to explain a consciously shared history. His novels offer multiple narrators, plural sources of narration, seeking to converge on a common narrative, springing from a central event that has been irrecoverably obscured by time.
A Brief History of Seven Killings, on the other hand, is novel with a center–the attempted assassination of Bob Marley–that does not, even for most of the characters, explain much at all; it most clearly explains why the characters are in the same novel.
The narration that springs from it does not assume, or imply, a common narrative; the significance of the attempted assassination does not concern many of the characters. Nonetheless, it would be going to far to call it a red herring or MacGuffin in the novel, as it inspires Sir Arthur George Jennings, witnessing Marley’s funeral (he died later, from cancer) to honor Marley’s influence in the world:
But in another city, another valley, another ghetto, another slum, another favela, another township, another intifada, another war, another birth, somebody is singing Redemption Song, as if the Singer wrote it for no other reason but for this suffered to sing, should, whisper, weep, bawl, and scream right here, right now.
But these are far from the final words in the novel, and they need to be read as both jarring with the symphony of voices in the novel who live without such ideals (it is a rare moment of hope for social change), and also as being made irrelevant, in the novel’s structure, to them; the point of the novel is not to show other voices ignoring Marley’s significance (that would make it a novel about Marley), but to show that Marley is only one center in the novel.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is a historical novel written from the perspective of characters who do not care about history, or else do not agree on what it is; at the root of that disagreement is a disagreement on what, if anything, gives history its contours, if it has contours at all. It disabuses itself of the notion that the narration of a historical novel needs to be concerned with the significance of (the course set by, the impact held by, the moral gravity in) a central event.
What is so impressive about James’ feat is that it does not, as a consequence, become instead a novel about memory or a novel about converging lives, though it is obviously both of these. The lives are intersected, whether the characters apprehend it or not, by events that cut across social class and identity, private and public worlds, geography, and nations; the worlds of the novel are complex and in motion and some character ask how they are directing that motion. Without a single focal point of significance, the novel gives instead a sense of history’s drifts and counter-drifts, its cross-current and stagnation; historical times that do not need to be granted priority.
Which is why the attempt by the journalist to make a single story is not a grievous failure or the object of snobbish disdain for long-form journalism: he tells a story, with a focus on the victims rather than the perpetrators of the violence. It is a story, among other stories; narration among other narrations. It would only be foolish and unjust to grant authority to the polished prose of the New Yorker.
We expect a historical novel to have direction: for Faulkner, the direction was from the distant past (the civil war, Caddie’s childhood) to the present; for Cather, it is the frontier; for Scott, the bourgeois 19th-century.
It is not the case that there is no direction in Brief History. Quite the opposite: there are many, and characters shift historical horizons; lose sight of them altogether; and recover them. None of them ring patently false. Hence Papi-Lo:
Plenty people even in the middle of suffocation going pick the bad they know over the good they can only dream about, because who dream but madman and food? Sometimes war stop because you forget why you fight, sometimes, you tired of warring, sometimes people who dead come back to you in you sleep and you can’t remember them name, and sometimes you come to see that who you supposed to fight not even your enemy.
There’s wisdom here, and the novel recognizes it; but it doesn’t cling to it any more than any character does; a sense of history is something that people fall into and fall out of; and often when history is hitting them (we can recognize the indicators, either through their own narration or through the placement of the narration of others), they do not have a sense for it at all.
Throughout the novel is a great deal of violence, overwhelming, grotesque, epic, indifferent, calloused, callousing, and poignant; but there is not only that. Nina Burgess, who has absorbed the attempted assassination as a witness, and who fears, probably without great reason, for her life as a consequence (she is not a part of anyone else’s version of the story; in the lives of others, that event has been eclipsed), receives the final words of the novel. She is the sole female narrator, and her story would have made a novel on its own. But it could not have been as touching as it is here, where it is inevitably unknown to other characters. She is adrift, refuse or fallout, from their stories, but her arc is propelled by her desperate hope that she remain that way. We might think that she wants to drop out of a larger history–and perhaps that is another way of saying what, in her view, she does want–but it would be truer to the novel as a whole to say that history falls out of their lives, like refuse, drifting in so many directions, sometimes converging and inexorable in its pull, but elsewhere incidental, barely noticeable.