Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women is, like, A Brief History of Seven Killings, a book about plotting and history: the circumstances that foment designs upon power, and the designs that power imposes on the relationships between people, between public and private spaces, and within the private as well as public imagination.
Boldly, it returns to the novels of the nineteenth century, and especially the British novel of the nineteenth century, for its machinery. There is now something called the “post-Victorian Victorian novel”; from what I’ve seen, they smack of affectation in language and melodramatic indulgence. Marlon James has none of that, though he does not shy from the melodrama inherent in drama. Instead, he recognizes that a chief power of the nineteenth-century novel lay in its self-conscious preoccupation with plots and plotting, and that it realized also the relation of plot and plotting to history, whether on the scale of Walter Scott’s failed rebellions or the scale of Jane Eyre’s hatred.
The novels of Scott and the Brontës are about heroism and heroics, and for this and other reasons, they take hold of adolescent readers (or Scott once did) more than most. Heroism and heroics in turn require that characters are able to act, to conspire, to rebel and resist, and to find victories even in the shadow of inescapable historical defeats. We might recognize some of these traits in comic book super-heroics— Marlon James has spoken of his early comic book fandom—and in so doing, we might be wary of their gravity or depth. Although they can be manufactured from superficial circumstances and thin characterization, even a glancing familiarity with Scott and the Brontës shows that they can grow as organically from a careful awareness of institutions and the ideologies that maintain them.
But then it is characteristic of Victorian plotting and characterization, inseparable from one another as they are, that even when most mature and adult in their conception, they are sustained by and offer fodder for what might be thought an adolescent imagination: the imagination that is given to scenes of reckless endeavor, bold self-aggrandizing action, and admirable impetuosity. There are other ways to plot a novel—but even the ever so grown-up George Eliot did not abandon these; it’s on the continent that the temptation to turn to them never seems to have been as strong.
But reckless endeavor, self-aggrandizing action, and impetuosity make for adolescent plots because they are derived from the hope that many people associate with adolescence, and adolescence alone, ceasing to know it afterward. Such a hope is not uniquely adolescent; it may also be revolutionary, whether the revolution is a farcical reaction (as in Redgauntlet) or zealously dangerous (as in Tale of Old Mortality) or as small as a courage to assert oneself against expectations that run so deep and broad in society as to constitute a form of oppression (as in Jane Eyre).
Revolution, like hope, is susceptible to delusion, and even depends upon delusion to some extent, in so far as it needs to foresee a reality that is removed from an actual state of affairs; it depends, that is on one of the greatest of possible fictions. A criticism of revolution, or hope, on the grounds that it might get something wrong is itself getting something wrong: hope, Marlon James’ novel implicitly argues, is most impressive, and most purely itself, when it is occasioned by an experience of prolonged despair—such as that known by slaves on a plantation in Jamaica in 1801.
But where I have described the plotting of James’ novel as hopeful and revolutionary, some might object that it as lofty as neither, that it is in fact a novel of sweetly justified revenge. And it is that. It is a novel that Emily Brontë might have read and re-read, with pleasure. But James’ revenge plots are other than those of Wuthering Heights, since Heathcliff, smarting from the humiliations and degradations, is not a slave as Lilith, Homer, Gorgon, and Callisto are. Though the relationships between the slaves are defined by status, pride itself does not feature in their motivations. Or else, pride as it is often presented in revenge novels, as an ambivalent force for good as well as ill, does not feature. It is perhaps impossible to write a novel of revenge where pride and honor are not central to action, but pride and honor in James’ novel are unalloyed markers of human dignity, welded to the autonomy and agency that slaves are denied. When Lilith kills Roget and his wife, she does so out of an instinct of self that encompasses pride and honor, and there is no questioning the justice of her motives.
It has been said that in the Homeric epics, the moral code and the honor code are one; by the inner code of the Odyssey, Ulysses’ slaughter of the men in his home is a victory for morality and status, sanctioned by the gods. Nowadays, we read the scene with some bemusement beneath our excitement. It is easier to find cracks, perhaps, in the honor code among the warriors in the Iliad, as when Achilles asks whether it is really worth his having gone to war for lasting fame; but fundamentally, acting for honor and acting correctly, or morally, are aligned in that epic. James’ slaves have been named after Homeric heroes; for them, also, but so very differently, to seek revenge, and to live by an honor code, is to do what is fundamentally right, by our own moral standards.
The logic of the novel is close kin to that of Homeric epic, without feeling like a force re-creation. Within the society of slaves on the plantation, honor and pride are prone to inspire cruelty; but set against the white oppressors of colonial Jamaica, they are guarantors of moral heroism. They are transfigured into honor and pride as most of us, these days, reading James’ novel, do not know them.
But, in stark opposition to pride and honor in Homeric epic, in James’ novel they are inherently revolutionary and radically hopeful, asserting themselves against a world that would deny and compromise their existence; they are the actuality upon which fictions can be plotted (and this would include Lilith’s love for the overseer Quinn).