Rising literary star James on America, ‘Purple Rain’ and the X-Men


A conversation with Marlon James feels like it could go anywhere: Prince versus Michael Jackson, X-Men versus “Love and Rockets,” Jamaica versus Minnesota, crime versus punishment.

It’s fitting for a guy who has written, for his third novel, “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” a dense, 700-page doorstop that is one of the year’s most electrifying novels, a sprawling mass with dozens of characters and as many points of view, part James Ellroy, part Roberto Bolano, part CIA and part gangster, part mid-’70s Jamaican politics and Reagan/Bush-era crack trade, part charging rhino and contemplative lion.

Over all of it hovers the 1976 attempted assassination of “the Singer,” a stand-in for Bob Marley, one of the very few pop stars who doubled as a messiah, not in the Ziggy Stardust way but in the this-guy-might-actually-bring-peace-in-our-time kind of way. Kinetic and violent, stream-of-consciousness yet carefully plotted, a crime epic in literary drag, “A Brief History” is a force to be reckoned with.

The 44-year-old James, a native of middle-class Jamaica, has described his worldview as “post-post-colonial,” which is to say that he is of a generation influenced not by the the former ruler Britain but by the cultural reach of the United States.

“For me, growing up, America was Hollywood, and the States was this land of absolutely beautiful people,” he says. “Even the grit and grime is stylized. You think there is no such thing as being bored, there is always drama. You have no way of processing the idea of a boring American life.”

But at the same time, James says, you get to know a country through the people you know who move there. “I think that when immigrants come to the States, they either expand or contract,” James says. “With Jamaican immigrants, their circle of life becomes very small. If they move to the Bronx, they live, work and party in the Bronx. It can become narrow.”

James also emphasizes his background was far more middle-class and stable than that of his characters. His pop culture interests were in line with, well, almost anyone else born in the West in 1970.

“I was a total record nerd,” James says. “The first albums I ever bought were Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ and the Jacksons’ ‘Victory.’ I played ‘Purple Rain’ so much my family knew the lyrics; I still play it about once a month. ‘Victory’ is still terrible. In college (at the University of the West Indies), I got into the Smiths and R.E.M. and Ministry and Nitzer Ebb.”

There is a pause. “Nobody ever talks about Nitzer Ebb anymore,” he says.

Comic books were also a huge influence. “I can still tell you what happens in X-Men #200 (from 1985). It’s the trial of Magneto in Paris when he fought the Fenris twins,” James says. “If you ever put me, Junot Diaz and Michael Chabon (two other comics-obsessed writers) on a panel, we would never get to talking about literature.

“Comics did two things for me,” James says. “They create a world of wonder but they also taught me how to pace a scene.”

There’s also a special place in his heart for the Hernandez Brothers’ “Love and Rockets.” Split into the “Palomar” stories by Gilbert Hernandez and the punk rock soap opera called “Locas” by Jaime Hernandez, it might be the greatest comic book America ever produced.

“I consider myself a pretty articulate guy, but I was gushing when I met Gilbert,” James says. “I was like, ‘Um…um…’ As far as I am concerned, any list of best American novels that doesn’t include ‘Palomar’ and ‘Locas’ is inaccurate.”

All sorts of things were pushed into the maw of a “A Brief History,” from Bolano to Ellroy. James says Jessica Hagedorn’s 1990 novel “Dogeaters,” set during the political turmoil of 1950s Manila, was a big influence.

“She does in 200 or so pages what took me 700,” James says. “I had never read a novel that so captured the on-the-street urgency of a corrupt nation though the eyes of the people.”

After college, James built a healthy career in advertising before subsuming to more literary desires. “There is a difference between ad writers and writers in adverting,” James says. “So much time in advertising is compromising ideas, and if you spend too long doing that, you will forget how to do it any other way.”

He published his first novel, “John Crow’s Devil,” in 2005, earning an MFA in fiction from Wilkes University in Pennsylvania in 2006. He has taught creative writing at Macalester since 2007.

And in keeping with a cast of thousands, James says there are bits of his experience all over “A Brief History.” “I sympathize with (Rolling Stone journalist) Alex Pierce trying to be not like everyone else when he’s actually not that great a writer. (Gangster leader) Josey Wales is a psycho, but he has the most refreshing worldview. “

And then there is the scene with one character, whom it would be too big of a spoiler to name, singing a line from the Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason” realizing that it is time to leave her home.

“That is totally me,” James says. “I love the Velvets, but hearing that line, ‘I do believe/ if you don’t like things you leave,’ that was at a point in my life when I was probably in my 30s and I was like, I have got to get my ass out of this country. It’s not a bad country, but living a literary life and being in a literary community is what I wanted more than anything else in the world. If you’re a creative person, eventually you reach the end of yourself there.”



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