The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma
Viking • $26.95 • ISBN 9780670026005
Published March 21, 2013
In Kristopher Jansma’s debut novel, an unnamed narrator wants to grow up and be a writer someday, but as he warns us in the opening chapter, “I’ve lost every book I’ve ever written.” In college, he meets the brilliant, bizarre Julian, who becomes his rival in writing, and the devastating and perpetually cool Evelyn, the actress who (of course) he can never have. In a mix of genre and style, our writer-narrator rewrites the story over and over again, telling stories of writers writing his own story, revisiting the threesome’s relationship again and again. When their relationship explodes, our narrator struggles to become a man and a writer entirely on his own.
In vignette-style chapters, our unnamed narrator wrestles with the misery of writing and his strange relationships to both his friends and to fiction. He never gains any sort of depth, and neither do his supporting players. He does makes small transformations, but his trajectory moves from one unfortunately typical personality to the next—first naive, then intolerably pretentious, etc. It toys with some Fitzgeraldian themes (rich people) with characters that feel a little Fear and Loathing or Withnail and I—but its postmodern stab doesn’t really land.
What this book does have going for it are some interesting ruminations on the scope and purpose of storytelling, as well as the role of the storyteller. Ultimately, in the Leopard world, storytelling is just a series of lies and plagiarism:
I’d been pondering my chosen vocation—to write fiction and to slant the truth—to tell lies, for a living. But I wasn’t good enough at it. No one believed me. And then my mind wandered back to little Deshawn, sitting at his desk avoiding the roaches, filling in those little Scantron bubbles with his yellow number-two pencil. He’d said that taking tests was like evolution in action—only instead of the brightest and most capable students suriving, it seemed that victory fell to those who could scam the test, learn the rhythms of the answers, the tenor of trick questions, take educated guesses, and budget their time. The teachers had stopped teaching science and English and started teaching them how to pass the test. Was it gaming the system? Or was it an evolutionary necessity?
The real novelists make you believe, as you read, that their stories are real. You hold your breath as Raskolnikov approaches his neighbor with a raised ax. You weep when no one comes to Gatsby’s funeral. And when you realize you are being so well fooled, you love the author all the more for it. Up in front of my students each day as Professor Timothy Wallace, I discovered the thrill of getting away with the manufacturing of reality. I had a way not only to pay the bills, but to become a better purveyor of make-believe. I had put myself into an evolutionary situation wherein my failure to deceive would result in disaster. Wherein I’d be forced to risk everything. Where I’d be rewarded for my successes at dishonesty. And the reward was that I barely though of my old life anymore.
The writing is vivid, and the characters, while flat, don’t bore. For readers who like to consider the construction of fiction, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards could make a good fit as a study of what does and does not work.
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