APRIL 20, 2019
IN 2014, Marlon James, who was born in Jamaica and now lives and teaches in the United States, published A Brief History of Seven Killings — a novel about Bob Marley, the Cold War, American imperialism, Jamaican political history, and more. The novel won the Man Booker Prize. As a follow-up, and seemingly in defiance of the literary culture that had embraced him, James promised the world an “African Game of Thrones”: “One hundred pages describing a village? Hell yeah. […] A big appendix on magic techniques? Of course I’m gonna do it. Two hundred pages on a mysterious dwarf race that lives underground? Fuck yes.” In 2019, he published the book and admitted that his initial description of it was a joke.
But that is not the story.
Some of the world’s oldest stories, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, contain elements of the fantastic. Nonetheless, modern literary culture has generally been perplexed as to what to do with fantasy — a genre, so the story goes, enjoyed by readers with an atavistic desire to escape from the modern world and its proper representation, a genre that cannot be beautiful nor tell us anything about who we are or how our world works. The worst fears of this high literary culture were realized when, at the close of the 20th century, Waterstone’s, the United Kingdom’s largest bookseller, announced the results of its Books of the Century poll: J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955) came out on top. The genre’s continued popularity since, in written form and in visual media, only confirms the contemporary world’s decadence and the dangers it presents to our very souls.
But that is not the story.
Even purveyors of highbrow “proper” literature deign to produce genre fiction now, and the debate about what all of this means rages on. Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road (2006) won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007, and, perhaps more importantly, it was an Oprah’s Book Club selection the same year. David Mitchell’s novels Cloud Atlas (2004), The Bone Clocks (2014), and Slade House (2015) each contain supernatural elements even as they exhibit literary pretensions. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was a notable “crossover” novel in 2005, when it was nominated for both the Man Booker Prize and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Nonetheless, Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (2015) raised, yet again, the question of the distinction between genre fantasy and proper literature, with Ishiguro himself committed to the position that the novel should not be considered fantasy and others suggesting that it might be okay if it was. Whether any of these books challenges critical or generic boundaries or simply adds new fuel to a now decade-old debate remains unclear. Whatever the case, Ishiguro wound up winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017.
But that is not the story.
At the close of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the fantasy Marlon James promised the world in the wake of A Brief History of Seven Killings, a character named Tracker finds himself captured by Kamikwayo, a so-called “white scientist” who has transformed himself into a monstrous human-spider hybrid through his experiments. Kamikwayo lives on the edge of the human world, eating monkeys alive both for sustenance and pleasure. He demands a story from Tracker in exchange for Tracker’s life. As Black Leopard, Red Wolf is nothing but Tracker telling stories — about his past, about his world, about the nature of stories — it is not surprising that he accepts the challenge: “You wish for a story? I shall give you a story.” Tracker then tells several stories: of a woman who would be queen but was denied the chance because of a change to tradition; of her son who should be king and the plot to kill him; of how this boy was stolen by monsters, turned into a monster, and then found by Tracker and returned to his mother; of how the boy remained a monster, willingly left his mother with another monster, and then helped that monster find Tracker’s home and murder his lover and adopted children. After each of these stories, Tracker concludes: “But that is not the story.”
It is only near his conclusion that James offers a schematic and straightforward account of Black Leopard, Red Wolf’s plot and the backstory to that plot, by way of the four stories Tracker tells. These events were and are important. That they are not the story now does not suggest some deeper, hidden narrative that must supplant what the reader thinks she already knows. Rather, by making clear what is not the story at this moment, Tracker reveals something about the nature of genre fantasy and how it distinguishes itself from the kind of literary fiction for which James has won fame and awards.
It would be tempting to read Tracker’s series of stories-that-are-not-the-story as false starts, as Tracker’s failed attempts to tell a tale he cannot quite articulate for its size or complexity, an example of the failure of words to represent an external reality. Certainly, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is large and complex, but Tracker has already aptly narrated the events he now only summarizes over the course of the previous 586 pages. The complexity of the story so told over these pages derives precisely from Tracker’s skill as a storyteller, from his facility with story and his ability to weave together manifold, fragmented, nested, and achronological narrative threads into a single tale, even if this tale never finally coheres into a moral lesson or final meaning. He may very well have told the story in a less complex fashion, but then it would not have been the story, just as these summaries are not the story. Tracker’s summaries only reveal what the reader already knows, what he has already told. They are not the story because they summarize what cannot be summarized, because they abstract what cannot be abstracted, because they reduce what cannot be reduced, because they edit and reorder what cannot be edited or reordered: story itself, which in Black Leopard, Red Wolf is both the sum total of the world and the impossibility of that world’s coherence.
In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), John Clute and Gary K. Wolfe tell us that
[a]ny narrative which tells or implies a sequence of events, in any order which can be followed by hearers or readers, and which generates a sense that its meaning is conveyed through the actual telling, may be called a Story. A Story, in short, is a narrative discourse which is told.
There are, to be sure, other forms of narrative in which sequence and toldness matter much less, if at all. In science fiction, or even the realist novel, infodumps can appear anywhere, conveyed through any number of channels, without affecting the narrative into which they are inserted. They may produce different effects — surprise, epiphany, joy, resignation, and so on — depending on when they appear in a narrative. However, infodumps — which convey apparently neutral facts about an objective world that conditions the narrative in question — by their very nature, imply that the information they contain means just the same thing whatever the context. That is, any character might tell the protagonist about some historical or scientific fact. Who does so, when that person does so, where that person does so: none of this has any effect on the facticity of the infodump or its capacity to ground the present narrative in an objective condition. If the placement of the infodump at this or that moment radically alters the meaning of the narrative in which it appears, the objectivity of the world to which the infodump refers would be called into question. Similarly, infodumps need not be told at all. The information they convey may be understood as given. No one needs to be told about gravity in the realist novel because readers assume it as a condition of the narratives conveyed by such novels. Such a condition for narrative may be part of a given narrative and affect what and how it means, but it need not be told.
But what of a world that does not exist independently of the tale told about it, a world whose physics and metaphysics are not indexed to consensus reality? Such are fantasy’s worlds, which exist only by way of story and which therefore cannot assume a history or even a nature that might condition them independently of that history or nature being told. In some cases, such as The Lord of the Rings, story may be quite linear, a simplicity which befits a facile morality that sees an absolute distinction between right and wrong such that justifies the genocide of a race, the orcs, without argument or even discussion. Middle-earth only exists in story, and the story told about it creates the meaning and being of that world even as it is told. Other fantasies, such as Black Leopard, Red Wolf, create different types of worlds, but these worlds are no less dependent on story for being so different. As James himself puts it, “There’s this rush to think that the only way readers can take it seriously is if it’s an extended metaphor for something. But when I was writing this novel, I don’t think I was messing with reality — I was writing reality.”
And for this reason, the response to Black Leopard, Red Wolf has been disappointing, even when that response has been positive. Too often this response misses the crucial point: James is not representing a world but creating one. Thus, one critic can acknowledge that this fantasy
has been heralded as a dizzying, polymorphic, semantic swarm of a novel, one whose energies and excesses derive from the episteme-jolting, form-fracturing fecundity of African topographies (James even contributes a few maps he drew), and whose girth and rambunctiousness stick two fingers up to blue-stockinged literary realism
without understanding that James does not map a real Africa but rather some place that does not exist except insofar as his map and novel describe it. (Which, to be sure, does rely upon stories that descend via James from various regions in Africa.)
One might forgive this critic for claiming that James is giving the finger to the literati, but it would be more apt to say that James is not acknowledging the literati or the world they claim to represent at all. Thus James’s turn to genre fiction is “not the story” because a turn to implies a turn away that is simply not taking place: Black Leopard, Red Wolf can be a departure only if we believe in the place from which it departs as the measure of all things. The distinction between a literary treatment of the real world and a generic creation of an unreal one only matters to those who believe that the alleged certainty of the former involves an objectivity that safeguards against mendacity. No doubt such objectivity is appealing in today’s post-truth world. Whether fiction, untrue in whatever form it takes, can be a proper or useful vehicle for this objectivity remains always in question.
Following the four stories-that-are-not-the-story, Tracker tells one more, about how he discovered his dead lover and his dead children, about how his grief turned to rage, about how he blamed his friend and former lover Leopard for these deaths, and about how he pursued the boy and his monstrous companion with such blind purpose that he made pacts with his greatest enemies so that he might have revenge, if not justice. This story tells of how Tracker came finally to be in this place, captured by Kamikwayo. It is only now, working only in this particular at this moment, when Tracker can acknowledge what happened to him and what he has done even as he understands that no story can change that past. None of the previous stories’ complexities — not only the betrayals and lies and confusions, but also the fleeting moments of love and happiness, of belonging and common purpose — can be expressed in the summaries Tracker has offered. However, all of this world — all of Tracker’s world that is nothing but these previous stories — provides only the condition for this final story, which itself cannot make everything cohere even if it leads to the end of the book. As Tracker puts it finally,
Maybe this was how all stories end, the ones with true women and men, true bodies falling into wounding and death, and with real blood spilled. And maybe this is why the great stories we told are so different. Because we tell stories to live, and that sort of story needs a purpose, so that sort of story must be a lie. Because at the end of a true story, there is nothing but waste.
In Black Leopard, Red Wolf, a story’s truth is not measured by how accurately it strives toward representing an objective reality. Rather, truth manifests in a story’s failure: as part of a world, made up of nothing but stories, that is bound to the imperfection of story. At the end of such a story, no truth, simple or otherwise, remains — only the story.