Marlon James’s characters are caught in “the shitstem,” eternally waiting for something to change.


A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James’s third novel, is the not-so-brief history of many hundreds of killings. The demure title belies its enormous ambition: James’s ostensible subject is the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976 and the climate of political violence in which that event took place, but the shooting is essentially a reference point in a much larger narrative about the island of Jamaica, the Jamaican diaspora, and the whole of the American world in the second half of the 20th century. Bob Marley is useful for James not because he is, for many people, the most familiar point of contact between Jamaica and the rest of the world, but because he is too often the only point of contact. He is all many people know about an island that was once among the most politically and economically important places in the world; a place the British and Spanish and French fought over for centuries; a place where great fortunes were made and millions of kidnapped Africans died.

James’s first two novels—John Crow’s Devil (2005), a short Caribbean small-town story, and The Book of Night Women (2009), about a slave revolt on a colonial-era sugar plantation—are both simple in their structure and straightforward in their telling. Seven Killings is a significant departure. It is exceptionally long (nearly 700 pages) and has been billed by its publisher as an “epic”—a label that can be worrisome but that, in this case, is justified. Its fragmented narrative emanates from the minds of its many different characters, who speak a variety of dialects, come from a great variety of social classes, move somewhat freely in time (and, in one case, speak from beyond the grave), and occasionally slip into Molly Bloom–style stream of consciousness. Its structure resembles that of As I Lay Dying, although there are more characters and more story lines, and the story unfolds over a much longer period of time.

The assassination attempt is a real but obscure historical event. Marley had agreed to play a concert sponsored by Michael Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP), and although his political allegiance was unclear—he’s depicted in the novel as a kind of peacemaker, “making ism rhyme with schism”—his apparent support of the PNP was potentially disastrous for the rival political party, the Jamaican Labor Party (JLP), which would have had good reason to try to prevent the concert from taking place. Marley’s manager, wounded in the shooting, said years later that the plot was orchestrated by the CIA, which was hostile to the socialist-leaning PNP. This is the version of events to which James subscribes, and it’s more than plausible in the Cold War Caribbean, particularly in the JLP garrison of Copenhagen City, a fictionalized version of Tivoli Gardens, Kingston’s notorious slum and the site of the violent standoff during the attempted arrest of its “don,” Christopher “Dudus” Coke, in 2010. Josey Wales, who has named himself for a fictional American outlaw, is the head enforcer of the garrison. He works with the CIA to train gunmen and carry out the assassination, and he does so without the knowledge of Papa-Lo, the reigning don of Copenhagen City.

But CIA or no, Jamaica was and is a dangerous place to be a musician. What was unusual about the assassination attempt was that Marley survived. Musicians like Prince Far-I, Peter Tosh, Carlton Barrett, King Tubby, and Hugh Mundell all met violent ends in the decade and a half that followed. Tosh and Prince Far-I were killed in what appear to have been attempted robberies, but the others died more mysteriously, gunned down in their yards or in their cars. The violence continues today: Drummer Style Scott was murdered last October. “A lot of these killings,” James said in an interview, “some of them are random, some are robberies, some are just because Jamaica is violent, but some of them are something that everyone’s connected to and most times you only know half the story.” In Seven Killings, the conspiracy involves JLP politicians, and James repeatedly underscores the extent to which the Jamaican governing elite has always been hostile to prominent people—especially musicians—who become symbolic of and beloved by the underclass.

As Alex Pierce, an American journalist, says in the novel, Marley emerged from the ghetto, from “this stew of pimento, gunshot blood, running water and sweet Rhythms,” and although he was “a sound in the air,” he was “also a living breathing sufferah who is always where he’s from no matter where he’s at.” He was a famous man who spoke publicly in patois, which made a lot of important people angry. Papa-Lo is a friend of his, but he has no trouble imagining what a “Bossman in the court” might think of him: “little half-white shortass become the voice of black liberation. This is who is the Jamaican public face number one? Him can read? Bossman who just come back from New York and Miami say what a public relations disaster for the country.”

* * *

Most of the Jamaicans in Seven Killings come from the ghetto, and they inhabit a culture of violence, though as James said in an interview, “I don’t think it’s a culture—it’s politics, it’s money, it’s extortion, it’s crime. I think it’s an economics problem.” The army and the police beat them up, torture them, and imprison them for no reason. They are victims of “the system,” or, as Papa-Lo says, “the shitstem”: “Soldier don’t act like we is crime and them is order, soldier act like we is enemy and this is war.” For the female characters—even those who live more privileged lives and never set foot in the ghetto—rape is a constant threat. One of them says: “I heard a story about a woman who went to the police to report a rape but they didn’t believe her so they raped her again.”

It isn’t easy to write humanely about people who do terrible things, although James manages to do so with uncompromising and unsentimental honesty. And the ghetto itself presents its own representational challenges, as V.S. Naipaul wrote in The Middle Passage. Alex Pierce paraphrases him here: The ghetto is “a rusty red chamber of hell that cannot be described…. It cannot be photographed because some parts of West Kingston…are in the grip of such bleak and unremitting repulsiveness that the inherent beauty of the photographic process will lie to you about just how ugly it really is…and the only way to accurately grasp the full, unending vortex of ugly that is Trench Town is to imagine it.”

Pierce and Naipaul are outsiders. Bob Marley was not an outsider, but the irony of his tremendous talent was that he made “a government yard in Trench Town” sound like a very nice place to be. James’s ghetto is different altogether—not an ugly place, not a nice place, but a place where people live. One of the most striking passages in the novel comes in a section narrated by Bam-Bam, one of the youngest of the gunmen hired to kill Marley. It is a lyrical meditation on the experience of daily life in Copenhagen City, and it’s worth quoting at length:

And I see shit water run free down the street and I wait. And I see my mother take two men for twenty dollars each and one more who pay twenty-five to stay in instead of pull out and I wait…. And the little room get smaller and smaller and more sisterbrothercousin come from country, the city getting bigger and bigger and there be no place to rub-a-dub or cut you shit and no chicken back to curry and even when there is it still cost too much money and that little girl get stab because they know she get lunch money every Tuesday and the boys like me getting older and not in school very regular and can’t read Dick and Jane but know Coca-Cola, and want to go to a studio and cut a tune and sing hit songs and ride the riddim out of the ghetto but Copenhagen City and the Eight Lanes both too big and every time you reach the edge, the edge move ahead of you like a shadow until the whole world is a ghetto, and you wait.

This is not a photograph; it isn’t a remote third-person voice. It’s just Bam-Bam himself. The authenticity and immediacy are at least in part a rhetorical effect: We’re not in the slum, but in Bam-Bam’s mind, so when he talks about the slum he’s talking about what it feels like, not what it looks like.

But Bam-Bam is also speaking patois, or something like patois, and this is another important point. One of the grim legacies of slavery is that high-status Jamaicans tend to speak the dialect of the slave owners, a dialect closely aligned with British English, and poor Jamaicans, the descendants of slaves, tend to speak patois, a dialect inflected more directly by the languages of West Africa. Obviously, the lines are blurred, so that in practice people try to modulate their speech based on their idea of themselves. Characters in Seven Killings are defined by how they speak: Nina Burgess, who witnesses the assassination attempt and eventually has to flee the island, speaks a dialect that’s basically indistinguishable from American English, but her sister is dating a Rasta and irritates her by coming in one day “playing ghetto”: “Well praise almighty Jah-Jah, it seem you finally wake up. It the third time me a call the sistren.” After Nina moves to the United States, her refusal to speak to other Jamaicans in patois is a central motif, and the moment when she finally does is a kind of reawakening or rebirth.

Ghetto characters in the novel are either marked by their habit of “chatting bad” or preoccupied by a desire to speak proper English, like Nina. Thus a line of dialogue says a great deal about who a character is and what he or she hopes to become. Asked if he’d like some fry fish, a criminal named Copper says, “Woi, man fi tell the I true, a long time me nuh nyam dem sinting deh.” But Josey Wales takes great pains to disguise his origins and pretends to be disgusted by Marley’s way of talking. “Seen him on TV couple years ago and was never so shame in my life. To think you have all this money, all these gold record, have lipstick print on your cocky from all sort of white woman, and that is how you talk?” Later in the novel, a CIA agent is unable to understand Josey himself, even though he’s “proud that he can speak good.”

For me, the inventions and discoveries of all these distinct voices are the great pleasure of Seven Killings. The use of “downpression” for oppression. “Shitstem.” The torrent of Jamaican obscenities. The moment when a CIA agent is trying to make his tiny son go to bed, and the child says, “Aw man. Babylon business this.” Josey’s casual remark that Papa-Lo “just reach the age where the person in the mirror is an old man who don’t look like him anymore.” There are chilling rhapsodic passages as well, like Bam-Bam’s monologue or the moment in which Demus, another gunman, has tripped in someone’s yard while fleeing after the botched assassination. “On the ground, under a tree hanging tamarind and bats. Tamarind in the dirt. Tamarind in the grass from one to another, tamarind to tamarind to tamarind to broken dish to Pepsi bottle to doll’s head to grass to weed to zinc fence.”

* * *

Seven Killings is also about memory and regret. The 1970s were violent and awful, but they were also a time when the United States, fearful that what had happened in Cuba might happen in Jamaica, spent a lot of time thinking about this small island.

Papa-Lo—who is eventually succeeded by the ruthless Josey Wales, who is himself succeeded by the even more ruthless Eubie—is an astute commentator on the geopolitical reality: “Burn-skin white man don’t want peace, he want Jamaica to become the USA state number fifty-one, shit, he would settle for just a colony.” Josey puts it more bluntly: “Strange how a man wants to fuck with a country him never live in before.” But all of this comes to an end. Jamaica’s significance in Cold War politics begins to wane. The CIA turns its attention to the Middle East. James’s criminals turn from political violence to the nihilistic violence of the drug trade.

The assassination attempt occupies only the first third of the novel. James follows those characters who survive for another 15 years, from Jamaica to Miami and New York City, and this part of the novel feels—deliberately, ingeniously, subtly—like a long epilogue. These characters are eternally waiting for something to change. They are living in an endless epilogue, a kind of postcolonial hangover, oppressed by what has happened to them but unable to escape. The assassination attempt fails, but cancer kills Marley just a few years later, and it turns out that it doesn’t matter anyway: He lives on as an international icon, bigger than the island, and casts a shadow over those who remain. Meanwhile, Jamaica is still Jamaica, a real place, and the world passes it by. As Papa-Lo reflects: “Nelson we learn about in high school along with Admiral Rodney who save Jamaica from the French. Who going to save Jamaica now?”

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