“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
That quote from Emily Dickinson is the driving force behind this masterful, creative, spectacular debut novel from Kristopher Jansma, and he never lets you forget that, even for a second.
It’s divided into two halves: What Was Lost and What Was Found, each of which is structured as a sort of collection of interconnected stories. While reading the first half, I was struck by how realistic it felt; I assumed that this was surely an almost-true account of Jansma’s own journey to becoming a writer: the first time, at age eight, he shared his work with someone else. Competing with his friend Julian to see who can write a better short story for a college competition, each feeling envious of the other’s talent and ashamed of his own. Meeting Evelyn, who will never cease to be The One That Got Away, witnessing her marriage to someone else and wishing he’d had the courage to stop it. A falling out that sends the three in different directions. The details in the stories pop in such a way, the emotions resonate so clearly that I was sure that Jansma had just changed the names to protect the innocent and we were headed towards another in a series of the increasingly popular genre in which Writer and Unreliable Narrator are one and the same (see: Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles
But then you get to the second half and find many small details have changed: it’s now Jeffrey instead of Julian, Luxembourg instead of India, Charlotte instead of Raleigh. The story is essentially the same: there’s still the would-be writer whose college roommate was always going to be the more successful, if less psychologically stable, of the two and there’s still the woman that he can’t talk himself out of loving despite the fact that she’s married to a minor royal.
And yet, things are different. They’re slanted. The narrator, having never become a successful writer, instead becomes someone else, over and over again. He assumes the identity of another writer sent abroad on assignment in order to teach a class on New Journalism, then travels to Dubai. He travels to Sri Lanka and meets two young women – one of whom just happens to have been the editor on his old friend Jeffrey’s wildly successful, critically acclaimed novel. He then travels with the editor to Ghana to impersonate his old friend to trick Jeffrey’s senile grandfather into providing information for a new biography on the now-reclusive literary giant. Then it's off to Iceland to follow Jeffrey to a writer's retreat before the story folds over on top of itself...and I mean in the most awe-inspiring way possible.
Because of all themes of truth and half-truth, fiction and slanting, there are many ways to read this book. At first, I was convinced that the What Was Lost half was the “true” story, and that the second half must be a fantasy about what the narrator imagined for himself after his dreams of being a writer never came to fruition. The details of the second half are so fantastic that it can’t possibly be what “really happened” – there’s no way it can be that easy to get a passport in someone else’s name, the coincidence of meeting the editor on a train on the other side of the world. After a while, though, I began to read the Found half as the “truth,” and the beginning as the narrator’s polished, studied version of his youth, a sort of meta example of the stories based upon his own life with the details slanted just enough that they can be considered fiction.
There are times when Jansma’s work shines through a little too much. He can be a little adjective happy – a perfectly unblemished arm, a nicotine-scarred lung – but he also draws incredible verbal pictures – a waterfall of hair, a woman too awe-inspiring to be contained within four Anglo-Saxon names.
There are also times when it feels like he’s hitting the metaphor-and-symbolism button a little too hard on the nose. Repeated references to the titular leopards, instances in which the narrator offers up false names in place of the real one we never learn, arguments between the two friends about using the details of each other’s lives in their own stories – it feels as though there isn’t a single image or phrase or symbol that Jansma hasn’t carefully planted with a very specific purpose in mind.
Approaching some of the stories as individual pieces makes this stand out more. The third story, in which Julian and the narrator have a run-in with Evelyn’s Micahel-Phelpsian boyfriend over Sunday brunch, felt very studied, like Jansma was mimicking the style and tropes of another writer (but whom, I couldn’t quite put my finger on; he references so many writers throughout the course of this book and I haven’t read enough to pinpoint the similarities precisely). But approaching the book as a single piece, I found it easy to forgive what might be otherwise considered the errors of an unpolished writer. Jansma is playing around with styles and ideas – at one point, we’re given an excerpt of a novella written by the character of one of the narrator’s short stories, all of which reflect events that Jansma has woven into the story about the writing of that short story, which in turn makes up a piece of Jansma’s own novel. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a better example of “meta” than that. It sounds crazy, even kind of pretentious, but it worked. I was blown away.
This is the kind of book that makes me miss working in a bookstore. I got to the end of it and all I wanted to do was find someone to discuss it with, someone to recommend it to, someone to share it with. It’s dense, twisty and complicated -- but in a good way. I got this as a freebie from NetGalley, but I want to run out and grab my own copy so I can underline all the wonderful passages as I try to peel back the layers upon layers upon layers and see what other ideas I can find lurking underneath. Two of my favorite excerpts:
"Time passes strangely in Africa. When we arrived, in our safari gear, we both thought we'd be like Bogey and Hepburn; she'd be irascible and I'd be thick-skinned, and we'd play games with each other for a while before falling madly in love during a vulnerable moment on a steamboat ride down the Nile. Instead, we're here talking about what I keep trying to forget."
“I considered this, but then I noticed my roommate, having removed all his clothing, running through the bramble and dust...The best thing to do–usually–was to let him play these things out. Who was I to tell a genius it was time to put his clothes back on?”
This is one that is gonna stick with me. I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to stop wondering what’s real and what’s fiction. ETA
: I got to meet Jansma at an event this weekend at the fantastic Politics and Prose bookstore. He could not possibly have been nicer, and listening to him talk about how he approached this book makes me appreciate it all the more. I really want to sit down and read it all over again.