[2 May 2013]
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” goes a line from a poem by Emily Dickinson that pops up within the narrative of young New York author Kristopher Jansma’s debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. It’s an apt line, for the book is obsessed with the nature of truth versus fiction: how much fact goes into one’s short stories and novels, and how much of it is made up; how much of it is plagiarized from other sources, and how much of it is fresh and original.
To that point, we never get to know the name of the narrator of this novel, aside from invented ones he offers up to those he meets on his journeys, as it turns out he’s a bit of a professional peddler of some real whopping frauds. Oh, and this would-be author in the form of the main character is constantly losing his manuscripts to the forces of fate, which seems to be a comment on how some pieces of writing are never meant to be read by a fawning public. And yes, this novel is about the perils of the trappings of fame: how too much of it may push a writer off the edge, resulting in a follow-up work that is simply terrible and cannot live up to the hype of its predecessor.
But as much as the fact that The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a book about writers and the act of writing – and the novel is very self-conscious of the fact as it is comprised of ten chapters that could read as individual short stories (which makes it nestle very closely in feel to Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad), with unfinished novel fragments contained within some of these short stories, making it something akin to a matryoshka doll of a book – it’s also a novel with the broader theme of friendships, lost and rekindled, and what makes for a kinship that’s true and merits the passing of time.
So yes, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a busy novel, but one can look at it as ultimately the story of a writer who is friends with an even better writer named Julian McGann and the love affair he has with Julian’s friend, Evelyn, who eventually becomes a princess in Luxembourg. (Though we never find out how this actually happens, other than through marriage. The details are rather skimpy.) Thus, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards feels like many books rolled up into one, and Jansma has deft and skilled hands to make it work as well as it does. You never get a sensation that these stories would be better served independently, even though there are times with the novel does feel a tad too meta for its own good, and it does get a little flashy and show-offy.
The novel is cleverly divided into two separate sections: “What Was Lost”, which is a Bildungsroman set in America as the main characters grow up, and “What Was Found”, a section that hops through space in a globetrotting manner, being set in Dubai, Sri Lanka, Iceland and Africa, among other places, as our narrator deepens his sense of falsehoods and finds himself constantly on the move, reinventing himself as he goes. This jumping about lends a soft touch to the book, keeping it breezy and quick, and to be sure, this is a fairly short novel that clocks in at about 250 pages, so the sensation is akin to a rather whirlwind adventure that Jansma takes one on.
This also points out a slight failing of the piece: character development gets jettisoned in favor of keeping things being short and snappy, and you do get the feeling that these characters never truly grow up. They’re stuck in a perpetual Never Land of sorts, despite the range of years that are covered throughout The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards: the characters start out in high school and college (save for a brief prologue that sets up the novel in which our narrator is a young boy just learning that he enjoys writing) and end up somewhere in their 30s.
As well, one’s enjoyment of the book hinges upon the fact that the main character is a bit of a spoiled brat of privilege, despite coming from a humble upbringing. He goes to a good college, he rubs shoulders with the upper crust, and constantly opines that he’s never a good enough writer to challenge his best friend. While this is presented somewhat humourously, which tempers a bit of the edge, if you had an adverse reaction to the characters who came from money in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, you may want to steer clear of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, as this is another book about young people with silver spoons in their mouths whining about First World problems.
Indeed, it’s hard to really sympathise with the main character when he appears to be rather lucky in his position in life, especially since he usually obtains that position by fabricating elements of his personality. However, it may just be that Jansma is stating the obvious here by showing us just how “fake” such people in high society really are, so one’s mileage of this aspect of the novel may vary.
Still, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a rapid read: it hits quick and dirty, and it’s rather fun as it winds its way down through a labyrinth of twisty narratives, let alone deceits and lies. While it’s a great, entertaining read, and you do manage to get wrapped up in the lives, as dubious as they may be, of the characters, one does get the sense that this is pretty much a lot of ado about not much in particular. While the narrative is certainly reflexive, there isn’t any sort of moral epiphany to be had or understanding of the nature of truth embedded in fiction, aside from the lesson presented in the book’s epilogue that one should write only for an audience closest to one’s own heart. Which is a nice way of saying The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a book without much of a point to it, aside from its gimmickry and sleight of hand.
So I’ve walked away from the novel being of two minds: I enjoyed it, and I would certainly recommend it. However, I’m probably going to wake up tomorrow morning and not really remember much of it. It’s a slight novel that wants to be weighty and profound, though you may wonder about why the narrator never reveals his true name or how it is that he managed to lose so many manuscripts. (You would think that, at some point, he might realize that something beyond him is trying to tell him something and that he should, perhaps, cut his losses and move onto another profession of note.)
In the end, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a slanted book. It just isn’t profoundly enchanted, however. A good read, and not much more, this is an often dazzling, promising start from a gifted young writer who may go places if he just tempers a bit of his flashiness and makes his characters just a tad more likable, without needing the crutch of self-deprecating humour as a form of temperament. This is a book that goes places, but also spins its wheels (particularly in the book’s second half) – making it likable to a degree, but hardly essential.
They say a leopard cannot change its spots, but one is hopeful that a writer can grow and mature. Another book or two from Jansma, and maybe he’ll produce something really novel and truly exceptional. Still, in spite of a slight criticism of the book at hand, what we have in The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards may not be revelatory, and it often states the blatant, but it isn’t a bad start. Not bad, at all.