Monday 26 September 2016

Marlon James - Writing a way out of the ghetto

When Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize for 'A Brief History of Seven Killings' last month, the first great artists he name-checked were Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Now he is adapting his book for a HBO series that's set to make reggae big once more and will put the contemporary novel in a place it hasn't been for a while. Our writer takes up the story back in the heroic age of writing

Published 30/11/2015 | 02:30

Marlon James is adapting his book for a HBO series that's set to make reggae big once more. Photo: Getty.ie
Marlon James is adapting his book for a HBO series that's set to make reggae big once more. Photo: Getty.ie

They laugh at the tea towels. Oh, how they laugh at the tea towels with the pictures of Joyce and Yeats and Beckett on them; oh, how they laugh at all that Irish literary kitsch, that eejitry.

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And they are right to laugh, because it is indeed eejitry, the way that we express our pride in our great writers in almost every conceivable way - the tea towels, the mugs, the pubs and even the ships named after them - without bothering much with the actual reading of their books, in the unlikely event that we would even possess one of them in the first place.

But while they may be right, for the most part, there is another level at which they may be wrong. Because in these vulgar representations there is, perhaps, a larger truth that we have stored in the depths of our cultural subconscious, an insight which suggests that we Irish do actually have a special understanding of these matters.

It goes something like this: the writer of a great book is a heroic figure whose achievement transcends mere literature. Indeed, to be concentrating on the minutiae of the work of a Joyce or a Beckett is, perhaps, to miss this over-arching point: that it is possible to love a writer, without loving all of his work. Or even most of it.

I love Dubliners, for example, and A Portrait of the Artist, but I do not love Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. And if you were to beat a confession out of me, I would say that what I really love is not the man's work, but Joyce himself.

He is so obviously a heroic figure you could actually hate everything he ever wrote, every line of it, and still revere the man. Essentially, he was against everything - long before Marlon Brando in The Wild One was asked, "What are you rebelling against?", and Brando replied, "What have you got?", Joyce was that dude.

He was, of course, against the obvious things such as religion, and nationalism, and Ireland, but he took it all much further by being one of the few writers of any era who was against language itself, or at least the language that was bequeathed to him, the one that everybody else used, and who therefore felt compelled to make up a language of his own - nothing else could properly give voice to the uniqueness of his being.

Beckett, too, was a writer who was against so many things he seemed to be against writing itself, declaring that “every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness”.

He was a magnificent man, a war hero in his work for the French Resistance, quite apart from any of those unnecessary stains, which he placed with such regret, on silence and on nothingness.

Moving along that literary tea-towel, we find the haunting presence of Patrick Kavanagh, who was in permanent opposition to everything that was later defined by Eamon Dunphy as ‘Official Ireland’. And there is O’Casey, who went against the curse of nationalism long before it was manifesting itself in the “execution” of mothers of 10 and the blowing up of shopping centres.

Wilde, perhaps the most heroic of them all, was against so many of the prevailing orthodoxies of his time, they eventually put him in jail — his genius for unravelling the upside-down bullshit of “conventional wisdom” was such, we are still only catching up with him.

Behan gets in there too, because he may not have produced many great works, yet in his largeness of personality there was a kind of inspirational quality. And Yeats had it somewhat the other way around, with the various deficiencies in his personality and his politics all being rendered irrelevant by the fact that he was perhaps the greatest writer of any kind who has ever lived.

But though we can claim this intuition into the power of literature, a power so great it can even touch even the most humble of merchandise in the souvenir section of the duty-free shop, this is by no means just an Irish thing.

I think of those Russian novelists and their black intensity; those French existentialists; I think of Americans such as Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer and Hunter S Thompson and Gore Vidal, and I understand why any 18-year-old who encountered such fabulous creatures might dream of becoming a writer.

I do not know if the Man Booker Prize has such magic. 

I do not know because I am not 18 any more, but if I were, I am guessing that this grand annual celebration of literary fiction might leave me cold — if, indeed, it left me any way at all.

It is not shown live on the BBC anymore, so we miss the critics running through the shortlist of six, referring to the book by Salman Rushdie as “the Salman Rushdie” — just one of the little affectations of the inhabitants of Bookerland.

But your 18-year-old, even if he managed to catch the announcement of the winner on a TV news bulletin, would see all the paraphernalia of a supremely posh affair, a black-tie dinner at the Guildhall with all these tremendously civilised folk chatting about the Salman Rushdie, and certainly if he were James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, he might well be against it.

If he were Brendan Behan or Patrick Kavanagh, in all likelihood he’d be so against it, he would put his shoe through the television.

What happened to all that fine madness?

It would seem that the world of literature is now inhabited by a different species, these beautifully-bred creatures whose ultimate destiny tends towards a professorship of creative writing at a great university, rather than being a terrible nuisance all round and ending up on a tea-towel and having a lounge bar named after you — if that is how they want to live, then so be it.

Certainly that heroic age of the writer has turned into something else, something that is, well, not quite as heroic. And there are many reasons for this, many of which are no fault of writers themselves, to do with the generally less repressive times in which we live — in the “heroic” age, particularly in Ireland, the mere act of writing any kind of a book that was any good was enough to identify you as a public menace.

But you’d have to think that this monster prize, this Man Booker, which has now grown to incorporate the American novel too, must be draining at least some of that subversive energy. And even if it’s not . . . well, it just looks wrong.

Yes, it is a huge achievement in itself to win this thing, but somehow it does not resonate outside those reverential cloisters.

Indeed, when I went to a bookshop to buy the books on this year’s shortlist, to get a sense of where the game is going these days, the chap in the bookshop had no idea what I was talking about, mate. And I accept that it wasn’t a very good bookshop, but it did contain a lot of books, and the guy asked a girl who was senior to him about this shortlist and she didn’t know much about it either.

But it seems that this may be about to change. It seems that the impeccably mannered folk of Bookerland have recognised some of the deficiencies in this culture of theirs, and they are doing something about it.

Perhaps they were moved by the success of Wolf Hall, the 2009 winner, which was turned into a superior BBC TV drama.

But this year they have gone further upmarket, because the winner, A Brief History Of Seven Killings, had already been optioned by HBO.

Yes, it really is that good.

So it will go something like this:

A Brief History of Seven Killings will indeed be made into a HBO series, co-written

by the author himself, the Jamaican, Marlon James.

By being optioned in the first place, A Brief History had already been given the highest award that we have in western culture, with the Booker just a tidy little bonus. And when it is made, I expect it will be brilliant, as the novel itself is brilliant.

Indeed, Marlon James contributed to this sense that the Booker was finally catching itself on, with an acceptance speech in which the first two great artists mentioned were not JM Coetzee or Julian Barnes, but Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, “who were the first to recognise that the voice coming out of our mouths was a legitimate voice for fiction and poetry”.

So it is fitting that he will be working with the makers of Mad Men and The Sopranos and The Wire, who have always understood at the deepest level that “popular” music is the great art-form of the second half of the 20th Century, that the true giants of our culture are the likes of Hank Williams and Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, and driven by that knowledge, they choose the records which accompany their dramas with the extreme sensitivity of a Booker banqueting committee selecting amuse-bouches for the big night.

So the TV version on HBO will surely be a tremendous hit, and there will be broader consequences — reggae music will be back in the global consciousness, after about 30 years in which it went mysteriously missing.

In particular the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers will be everywhere again, Marley being “The Singer” in the novel almost assassinated by assailants who, in December 1976, came to his home and sprayed the place with bullets, wounding him and various members of his family and crew, a scene which is at the centre of the book.

With the reggae back, we can expect to see a fashion for all sorts of pseudo Rastafarian behaviour to accompany it, most obviously the smoking of “gawnja” by white folks.

And since the TV series will feature many Jamaican gangsters talking in patois in a manner that is both deeply menacing and highly entertaining, we will find that our daily lives are being enriched by the use of Jamaican proverbs like “what no go so, go near so”, or just “what is this fuckery?”

And if anybody’s interested, it may also have the consequence of putting the contemporary novel, or “literary fiction” or whatever you want to call it, in a place it hasn’t been for a while.

When eventually I manage to buy the six books on the shortlist, the first thing that strikes me is that two of them, the winner and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, are roughly 700 pages long, with The Year Of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota and Anne Tyler’s A Spool Of Blue Thread getting on for 500 pages.

“What is this fuckery?” I say, in my new Jamaican accent.

If, as the man said, “every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness”, I imagine that Beckett would look at 700 pages of words as the most unspeakable atrocity.

But if you’re not Beckett — and let’s face it, many of us are not — you might see this as a statement that the novel is defying the oppression of the age which decrees that everything must be short and sweet, but mainly short.

Or perhaps these enormous efforts are just the fashion in what the writer Percy Zvomuya calls “the ever expanding Creative Writing Industrial Complex”.

Or it could just be a mark of the healthy levels of self-esteem of these writers, the rock-solid ego it takes to put 700 pages of your work in front of anyone and expect them to read it, again bearing in mind that a ‘biog’ of a Booker nominee would tend to go something like this: “Born in Cairo, where his father was posted as a diplomat, he had a peripatetic childhood during which the family moved to Mumbai, then Toronto, then Dar es Salaam, a journey that finally took him to Cambridge where his contemporaries included . . .”

The days of the writer having about 20 menial jobs, being a short-order cook —  or even a long-order cook — and generally gaining experience of the hard life he would later transform into literature, seem to be as distant as all the dead heroes.

Or maybe the ridiculous size of these books is about nothing at all, nor does it matter, because in the crucial issue of the result, they have got it right.

Which doesn’t even mean that A Brief History is my personal favourite of the six — that would be the wonderfully tragic The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, and I would have endless respect for Anne Tyler who exemplifies “the great pleasure of doing things right” — but for the strategic reasons that we have outlined, the Marlon James is the one.

Yes, it really is about time that we heard names like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh being spoken proudly in these temples of the fine arts; we have heard enough of the “disenchanted academic meditating on memory and loss as he researches the life of a 19th-Century church architect”, we no longer wish to read the works of men who don’t know that Led Zeppelin are good.

Instead we have the voice of the gang member Bam-Bam, who says: “Sometimes a man get kill because he look at another man in a way he didn’t like. And killing don’t need no reason. This is ghetto. Reason is for rich people. We have madness.”

In Rikers Island, the character Tristan Philips tells a Rolling Stone journalist, Alex Pierce, about where he is coming from: “But seriously Alex, prison library serious to fuck. Me go to plenty library in Jamaica and not one have book like the number of books me see in Rikers. One of them is this book Middle Passage. Some coolie wrote it, VS Naipaul. Brethren, the man say West Kingston is a place so fucking bad that you can’t even take a picture of it, because the beauty of the photographic process lies to you as to just how ugly it really is. Oh you read it ? Trust me, even him have it wrong. The beauty of how him write that sentence still lie to you as to how ugly it is. It is so ugly it shouldn’t produce no pretty sentence, ever.”

Above all this we see the immense figure of Bob Marley, and we find a writer who knows the proportions of these things.

We find Bam-Bam again, saying of The Singer: “You use what you have, even a melody that’s not yours, and you sing it hard and sing it long and sing yourself straight out of the ghetto.”

The Booker Prize and all belonging to it are hitching a ride on this book. Looking for a way out of their own ghetto. 

 

Continued from page 18

Beckett, too, was a writer who was against so many things he seemed to be against writing itself, declaring that “every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness”.

He was a magnificent man, a war hero in his work for the French Resistance, quite apart from any of those unnecessary stains, which he placed with such regret, on silence and on nothingness.

Moving along that literary tea-towel, we find the haunting presence of Patrick Kavanagh, who was in permanent opposition to everything that was later defined by Eamon Dunphy as ‘Official Ireland’. And there is O’Casey, who went against the curse of nationalism long before it was manifesting itself in the “execution” of mothers of 10 and the blowing up of shopping centres.

Wilde, perhaps the most heroic of them all, was against so many of the prevailing orthodoxies of his time, they eventually put him in jail — his genius for unravelling the upside-down bullshit of “conventional wisdom” was such, we are still only catching up with him.

Behan gets in there too, because he may not have produced many great works, yet in his largeness of personality there was a kind of inspirational quality. And Yeats had it somewhat the other way around, with the various deficiencies in his personality and his politics all being rendered irrelevant by the fact that he was perhaps the greatest writer of any kind who has ever lived.

But though we can claim this intuition into the power of literature, a power so great it can even touch even the most humble of merchandise in the souvenir section of the duty-free shop, this is by no means just an Irish thing.

I think of those Russian novelists and their black intensity; those French existentialists; I think of Americans such as Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer and Hunter S Thompson and Gore Vidal, and I understand why any 18-year-old who encountered such fabulous creatures might dream of becoming a writer.

I do not know if the Man Booker Prize has such magic. 

I do not know because I am not 18 any more, but if I were, I am guessing that this grand annual celebration of literary fiction might leave me cold — if, indeed, it left me any way at all.

It is not shown live on the BBC anymore, so we miss the critics running through the shortlist of six, referring to the book by Salman Rushdie as “the Salman Rushdie” — just one of the little affectations of the inhabitants of Bookerland.

But your 18-year-old, even if he managed to catch the announcement of the winner on a TV news bulletin, would see all the paraphernalia of a supremely posh affair, a black-tie dinner at the Guildhall with all these tremendously civilised folk chatting about the Salman Rushdie, and certainly if he were James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, he might well be against it.

If he were Brendan Behan or Patrick Kavanagh, in all likelihood he’d be so against it, he would put his shoe through the television.

What happened to all that fine madness?

It would seem that the world of literature is now inhabited by a different species, these beautifully-bred creatures whose ultimate destiny tends towards a professorship of creative writing at a great university, rather than being a terrible nuisance all round and ending up on a tea-towel and having a lounge bar named after you — if that is how they want to live, then so be it.

Certainly that heroic age of the writer has turned into something else, something that is, well, not quite as heroic. And there are many reasons for this, many of which are no fault of writers themselves, to do with the generally less repressive times in which we live — in the “heroic” age, particularly in Ireland, the mere act of writing any kind of a book that was any good was enough to identify you as a public menace.

But you’d have to think that this monster prize, this Man Booker, which has now grown to incorporate the American novel too, must be draining at least some of that subversive energy. And even if it’s not . . . well, it just looks wrong.

Yes, it is a huge achievement in itself to win this thing, but somehow it does not resonate outside those reverential cloisters.

Indeed, when I went to a bookshop to buy the books on this year’s shortlist, to get a sense of where the game is going these days, the chap in the bookshop had no idea what I was talking about, mate. And I accept that it wasn’t a very good bookshop, but it did contain a lot of books, and the guy asked a girl who was senior to him about this shortlist and she didn’t know much about it either.

But it seems that this may be about to change. It seems that the impeccably mannered folk of Bookerland have recognised some of the deficiencies in this culture of theirs, and they are doing something about it.

Perhaps they were moved by the success of Wolf Hall, the 2009 winner, which was turned into a superior BBC TV drama.

But this year they have gone further upmarket, because the winner, A Brief History Of Seven Killings, had already been optioned by HBO.

Yes, it really is that good.

So it will go something like this:

A Brief History of Seven Killings will indeed be made into a HBO series, co-written

by the author himself, the Jamaican, Marlon James.

By being optioned in the first place, A Brief History had already been given the highest award that we have in western culture, with the Booker just a tidy little bonus. And when it is made, I expect it will be brilliant, as the novel itself is brilliant.

Indeed, Marlon James contributed to this sense that the Booker was finally catching itself on, with an acceptance speech in which the first two great artists mentioned were not JM Coetzee or Julian Barnes, but Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, “who were the first to recognise that the voice coming out of our mouths was a legitimate voice for fiction and poetry”.

So it is fitting that he will be working with the makers of Mad Men and The Sopranos and The Wire, who have always understood at the deepest level that “popular” music is the great art-form of the second half of the 20th Century, that the true giants of our culture are the likes of Hank Williams and Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, and driven by that knowledge, they choose the records which accompany their dramas with the extreme sensitivity of a Booker banqueting committee selecting amuse-bouches for the big night.

So the TV version on HBO will surely be a tremendous hit, and there will be broader consequences — reggae music will be back in the global consciousness, after about 30 years in which it went mysteriously missing.

In particular the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers will be everywhere again, Marley being “The Singer” in the novel almost assassinated by assailants who, in December 1976, came to his home and sprayed the place with bullets, wounding him and various members of his family and crew, a scene which is at the centre of the book.

With the reggae back, we can expect to see a fashion for all sorts of pseudo Rastafarian behaviour to accompany it, most obviously the smoking of “gawnja” by white folks.

And since the TV series will feature many Jamaican gangsters talking in patois in a manner that is both deeply menacing and highly entertaining, we will find that our daily lives are being enriched by the use of Jamaican proverbs like “what no go so, go near so”, or just “what is this fuckery?”

And if anybody’s interested, it may also have the consequence of putting the contemporary novel, or “literary fiction” or whatever you want to call it, in a place it hasn’t been for a while.

When eventually I manage to buy the six books on the shortlist, the first thing that strikes me is that two of them, the winner and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, are roughly 700 pages long, with The Year Of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota and Anne Tyler’s A Spool Of Blue Thread getting on for 500 pages.

“What is this fuckery?” I say, in my new Jamaican accent.

If, as the man said, “every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness”, I imagine that Beckett would look at 700 pages of words as the most unspeakable atrocity.

But if you’re not Beckett — and let’s face it, many of us are not — you might see this as a statement that the novel is defying the oppression of the age which decrees that everything must be short and sweet, but mainly short.

Or perhaps these enormous efforts are just the fashion in what the writer Percy Zvomuya calls “the ever expanding Creative Writing Industrial Complex”.

Or it could just be a mark of the healthy levels of self-esteem of these writers, the rock-solid ego it takes to put 700 pages of your work in front of anyone and expect them to read it, again bearing in mind that a ‘biog’ of a Booker nominee would tend to go something like this: “Born in Cairo, where his father was posted as a diplomat, he had a peripatetic childhood during which the family moved to Mumbai, then Toronto, then Dar es Salaam, a journey that finally took him to Cambridge where his contemporaries included . . .”

The days of the writer having about 20 menial jobs, being a short-order cook —  or even a long-order cook — and generally gaining experience of the hard life he would later transform into literature, seem to be as distant as all the dead heroes.

Or maybe the ridiculous size of these books is about nothing at all, nor does it matter, because in the crucial issue of the result, they have got it right.

Which doesn’t even mean that A Brief History is my personal favourite of the six — that would be the wonderfully tragic The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, and I would have endless respect for Anne Tyler who exemplifies “the great pleasure of doing things right” — but for the strategic reasons that we have outlined, the Marlon James is the one.

Yes, it really is about time that we heard names like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh being spoken proudly in these temples of the fine arts; we have heard enough of the “disenchanted academic meditating on memory and loss as he researches the life of a 19th-Century church architect”, we no longer wish to read the works of men who don’t know that Led Zeppelin are good.

Instead we have the voice of the gang member Bam-Bam, who says: “Sometimes a man get kill because he look at another man in a way he didn’t like. And killing don’t need no reason. This is ghetto. Reason is for rich people. We have madness.”

In Rikers Island, the character Tristan Philips tells a Rolling Stone journalist, Alex Pierce, about where he is coming from: “But seriously Alex, prison library serious to fuck. Me go to plenty library in Jamaica and not one have book like the number of books me see in Rikers. One of them is this book Middle Passage. Some coolie wrote it, VS Naipaul. Brethren, the man say West Kingston is a place so fucking bad that you can’t even take a picture of it, because the beauty of the photographic process lies to you as to just how ugly it really is. Oh you read it ? Trust me, even him have it wrong. The beauty of how him write that sentence still lie to you as to how ugly it is. It is so ugly it shouldn’t produce no pretty sentence, ever.”

Above all this we see the immense figure of Bob Marley, and we find a writer who knows the proportions of these things.

We find Bam-Bam again, saying of The Singer: “You use what you have, even a melody that’s not yours, and you sing it hard and sing it long and sing yourself straight out of the ghetto.”

The Booker Prize and all belonging to it are hitching a ride on this book. Looking for a way out of their own ghetto.

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