Sunday, March 17, 2013

Book Review: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

Jansma, Kristopher. The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. New York: Viking, 2013.  Hardcover. +272 pages. $26.95. Release Date: 21 March 2013.

Full Disclosure: I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.


"THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS follows the worldwide travels of a deliberately unreliable narrator and his two friends: Julian McGann, a brilliant but troubled collegiate literary rival, and the high-society Broadway actress Evelyn, also known as the girl who got away. Struggling to define themselves as individuals but inextricably bound together, the three chase love, success, and each other from jazz clubs in Manhattan to a writer’s colony in Iceland, from the mountains of Sri Lanka to a wedding on the lip of the Grand Canyon. After the trio has a disastrous falling out, the narrator weaves an intricate web of fiction around himself that allows him to dodge responsibility—but never fully escape it.   It is only once he is able to put aside his fictions and confess his own role that he is set free.

 As much a coming-of-age story about a young man and his friends trying to find their way in the world as an exploration of the nature of truth, Kristopher Jansma’s THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS will appeal to readers of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and David Mitchell’s The Cloud Atlas, with its elegant study of the stories we tell to find out who we really are." - Viking Press Release


I remember the first time a book reached out and, to use an Internet colloquialism, punched me right in the feels.  I was a teenager reading a book called The Mozart Season by Virginia Euwer Wolff, and when I was finished, I put it away, but the book stayed with me.  Six months later, I read it again.  Six months later, I read it yet again.  Each time, it kept making the emotional impact.

In graduate school, I recognized that feeling again when I picked up A.S. Byatt's Possession for a class.  I didn't have the luxury of putting it away, thinking about it, and picking it back up again months later; I had to sit down and write about in depth about it and pick apart the paradoxes and the tangles of plot.  I lived and breathed Possession for a semester until it infused my soul.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, like these other volumes, is one of those books that takes up residence right behind your breastbone and settles in, molding itself and wrapping itself around your heart and changing you, perhaps in a subtle way, until you are no longer quite the same person you were before you read it.  In the same way that Possession was about reading and literary study, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is about writing.

Viking noted, in their blurb to me, that this book and its narrator follows Emily Dickinson's lines to "Tell the truth, but tell it slant."  It also reminded me of a remark attributed to Mark Twain: "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story," and something I've heard my father say: "In a room full of storytellers, the first liar never has a chance."

Simply put, this is a story about telling stories.  And it's intensely clever about doing so--at the beginning of the book, there's a note that asks the reader to contact "Haslett & Grouse Publishers" if the reader believes they are the author of the book.  I admit, I completely skipped over that--as most people would, I think--until I read a question and answer with Jansma.  The author's note is beautifully written, and I remember thinking, as I read the note, how much I would like to read that story, of how Jansma had lost his first novels.

It wasn't until I was well into the book that I realized the author's note was by the fictional narrator.  I paused, went back to the author's note, and read it again, suddenly realizing that I was reading the story I'd wanted to read, only that I'd made the cardinal mistake of literary criticism--one of the first things you learn not to do--to conflate the narrator and the author.  What's more--I'd been intended to.


I've spent two weeks contemplating how to write this review.  There are so many insights about writing as a profession, from the adjunct professor to the professional plagiarist to the world-class novelist (writing from the perspective of a writer for a paper mill was particularly inspired, I thought, and as an academic, I've always wondered about that thought process).

That is not to say that the book is perfect.  There is a break at the midpoint of the novel that keeps the book from being seamless in its narrative that causes an abrupt shift as the reader struggles to catch back up with what's going on and tries to figure out if the characters now appearing are the same characters as before; if there is a main weakness in this novel, this is it.

This book, will, very simply, take more time.  I'm going to have to live with it, come back to it and re-read it, think about it, and yes, perhaps write about it some more, because it is a book that is worth being written about, if only to figure out where, in this postmodern morass of lies and fictions, the germ of truth is (if there is one) that I, as the reader, will choose to believe.


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