Review of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

The Unchangeable Spots of LeopardsTitle: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
Author: Kristopher Jansma
Published: 21 March 2013
Publisher:
 Viking
Genre: literary fiction, metafiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

This one is a gem – a book about writers and writing, fiction, lies, and truth.

Apparently one of the ‘absolute’ rules of fiction is that you don’t write about writers, but like Kristopher Jansma, I have never heard this and I don’t buy it. In an interview with Interview Magazine he dismissed the idea that such stories are only interesting to other writers – we can all understand the practice of storytelling:

Even if readers aren’t writers, they tell each other stories; they process great books the same way that we all do. Some of us sit down at a typewriter or computer and write out what we’re feeling, other people call up a friend. We all go through the storytelling process to make sense of it all.

I am glad Jansma ignored the rules – I love metafictional tales, not to mention the intimate portrayal of a writer and compulsive liar. The unnamed narrator of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards claims to have “lost every book I’ve ever written” beginning with a short story written during the after-school hours and vacations he spent waiting for his mother at the airport. In high school, he discovers that he is a talented liar when he’s asked to act the part of a high-society teenager and escort a debutante to her ball. He goes on to study ‘lying’ at college, in a fiction and poetry class. Here he meets Julian McGann, a writer as talented and troubled as he is. Julian is the stereotypically tortured, eccentric artist. He seems to come from another age, and works only on a typewriter. He drinks too much, sleeps with too many young men who he discards in the morning, and writes in ferocious bouts of inspiration when he barely eats or sleeps.

Julian and the narrator begin a years-long friendship characterised by competition and jealousy, but strengthened by their shared love of writing. Julian introduces the narrator to his friend Evelyn, a gorgeous, charismatic actress. He is instantly infatuated with her, and she becomes his lover, the love he will never have, and the subject of a novel he spends years trying to finish.

The trio travel around the world, and although the novel is set in the present day, the characters’ tastes and habits often create the sense that they’re living in the Jazz Age. Our narrator goes from his tiny home town of Raleigh to New York, the Grand Canyon, Dubai, Ghana, Iceland and Luxemborg. He lies constantly, making himself up as he goes along, and struggling with relationships based on fictions. It’s one of those magical debuts – fresh and enchanting.

It feels like a book that’s going to get a lot of well-deserved attention this year, partly because of the delightfully dishonest narrator. You never know when he is lying, and he lies to everyone – strangers, lovers, friends, you, himself. Although you never learn his real name, he invents or borrows names. Eventually, he’s more accustomed to lying than telling the truth. Everything he writes or says is true in some way, but because of the way he twists fact into fiction, you learn to be sceptical. There were occasions when I was completely surprised to learn the extent of his lies. The novel is kind of trick, but you feel captivated rather than conned.

Of course, there is also a lot about creating fiction. His aim, taken from Emily Dickinson is “Tell the Truth but tell it slant”. He tries to figure out what exactly this means for him throughout the novel. It’s a question of how much of your own experience to put into your fiction. He always writes about himself to some extent but alters details, trying to give meaning or structure to his life, or write his world as he would like it to be. We also see his development as a writer. As a child, the narrator began by writing about the people he saw in the airport while waiting for his mother. He wrote so he could tell her what she’d missed while she was working, but of course he was also developing a skill for writing characters. At college, he is intimidated by Julian’s ability to write incredible stories about people from all over the globe, until he finds out that Julian too takes his stories from real life; he’s just very wealthy and has had a much more varied life so far. It’s interesting to see which details they pluck from their lives and how they re-imagine them for fiction. The narrator’s stories are usually borne out of his personal obsessions – the women who captivate him, his competitive friendship with Julian, and of course his struggles with writing.

Each chapter tells a full tale that fits into the whole, and stories are embedded within stories through things like summaries of Julian’s work and extracts from the narrator’s projects. I enjoyed most of them a great deal. Like the narrator wishing he had Julian’s talent, I wanted to be able to tell stories with such quirky details and great lines. I would have easily given the novel five stars if only there weren’t a few parts that proved a bit dull in comparison to others.

I didn’t really enjoy the extracts from the narrator’s writing, especially the snippets from a romance inspired by his affair with Evelyn. It makes sense that his voice in these stories would differ from the novel itself; unfortunately it’s rather bland. Then he parts from Julian and Evelyn after a falling out, and the novel slows down. Julian is such an eccentric and disastrously passionate character that I missed him even though I had no problem with where Jansma was taking the story. I was however, quite annoyed when the narrator travelled to Ghana, but kept using the blanket term ‘Africa’; a common, infuriating habit.

Those aren’t book-ruining problems though. This is one of the most inventive and enjoyable novels I’ve read this year, and I often think of what a good decision it was to request a review copy. It’s the kind of book that bridges the gap between popular fiction and literary fiction, in that it’s smart and well-written, but also entertaining and easy to read. I hope it does well.

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