Books

'The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards' Hits Quick and Dirty

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 more likable.


The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

Publisher: Viking
Length: 254 pages
Author: Kristopher Jansma
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-03
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“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.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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