Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
Kristopher Jansma
Publisher: Viking  (March 2013)
ISBN: 978-0-67-002600-5

Available at Amazon
also available in Kindle format

So many reviews start off by saying "Whats-his-name (the main character) is in the process of dealing with [insert situation here]..." but this is a book that will not let a reviewer do that.  Because, as far as we can tell (and the reader doesn't notice it right away), the main character is nameless.   Well, not nameless exactly -- we just never know his actual name.  He gets called lots of names (some he invents) from Walker Hartright at the debutante ball, to Pinkerton in his writing class, to Timothy Wallace, when he decides to take a teaching job in Dubai using someone else's name, to Outis when he's in Sri Lanka. 

His friends have consistent names (except for the various characters called "Simon"-- interchangeable props that wander in and out of the stories); his best friend (also biggest competitor) Julian, has a full name (except when he's not being called Anton or Jeffrey Oakes), as does Evelyn (who has her own name except when she's a character in a story), but the protagonist is always fibbing about who he is.  He does not, however,  ever fib about the important matter of his being a writer, and that his first and foremost duty is to the truth, by veracity, fantasy, or flat-out lying.

He (let's call him Pinkerton, since calling him "the main character" gets to be a bit much) includes his writings in the book, sections "reprinted with permission from the Vicksburg Review" with the cryptic initials C.E.E.B following the notation, in which his friends, and others, make an appearance.  The various tales in the book that are told about day to day life are intertwined with stories he has written, jumping time-frames and character names, but remarkably, the stories hang together forming a chain of events that make an illogical kind of perfect sense, regardless of what his name is.

Kristopher Jansma, the author, appears to be making the case that whether lie or truth, life has a certain order and has a sort of quirky coherence to it, no matter what.  Fantasy tells a story; truth tells a story, and, in the end, it's only the story that matters.

There's a Seinfeld-esque wit and cynicism, and more than a few shades of Gatsby, in the stories, which flow in and out of one another, connecting and un-connecting but, miraculously, it's still possible to see an underlying reality which makes it fascinating, because somehow the author manages to let the readers keep most of it straight even though the ground is shifting under their feet.

This is not a genre I usually read, but "The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards" has a complexity that leaves the reader checking back to see where the hints are that connect the stories and the characters, and there is a haunting ambiguity that captures the imagination.

At its core, the book is about the art of telling stories, told by telling stories.  It's been described as "mind bending" and that's not far off the mark.  I suspect we'll hear quite a bit more from this author in the future.

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