Perhaps like most people who are professionally involved with books, reading and writing, one of my favorite fiction genres is the novel that takes on writing or publishing as its topic and its theme. Last year's MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE delighted me in that way; this year, I know I'll be telling a lot of my bookish friends to pick up THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS.
Kristopher Jansma's debut opens with an irresistible teaser: "If you believe that you are the author of this book, please contact Haslett & Grouse Publishers (New York, New York) at your first convenience." The "author" of this book, whoever he is, is not only an enigma, he also has a long history of losing every important writing project he has ever finished, this one apparently included. This tendency begins in early childhood, when our unnamed narrator, left behind at Terminal B for hours while his mother, a flight attendant, is on her shifts, composes short vignettes and eventually a whole book about the people he sees traveling through the airport. In the course of one brief misstep, however, his hard work --- and his feeling of safety in Terminal B --- is discarded in an instant.
"Will Jansma’s novel be most appealing to those who fashion themselves writers or 'book people'? Sure, but this mind-blowing spiral of a book will also appeal to anyone who enjoys their fiction as playful as it is intriguing."
This love of writing --- even a compulsion to write --- followed closely by disillusion and disappointment is an ongoing theme of the novel. As the narrator gets older and moves from awkward teenager to young creative writing student enchanted by Emily Dickinson's imperative to "tell all the truth / but tell it slant," characters from his own life --- including himself --- become inextricable from those in his fiction. Eventually this nebulous figure --- as he travels from New York City to the Grand Canyon, Dubai, and even Ghana --- becomes nearly subsumed by the process of making fiction.
What is truth and what is fiction? This is a question to which readers, not to mention the narrator himself, return again and again. As the "author" notes at the end of his introduction, "These stories are all true, but only somewhere else." This playful blurring of fiction and fact, of real and imagined, reads like an enormous puzzle, one that readers will enjoy unscrambling, finding patterns and recurring themes, making guesses and drawing their own conclusions. In addition to being a spot-on satire of university writing programs, authorial envy, and the perils of plumbing one's own life for one's fiction, THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS is a fascinating riff on dozens of different literary classics, from Wilkie Collins's THE WOMAN IN WHITE to Homer's THE ODYSSEY to Hunter S. Thompson's FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS.
Will Jansma’s novel be most appealing to those who fashion themselves writers or "book people"? Sure, but this mind-blowing spiral of a book will also appeal to anyone who enjoys their fiction as playful as it is intriguing.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 22, 2013
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards