This is an incredibly hard one to review. The more time passes since my reading of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma, the less I like it…?
Let’s start with a brief synopsis, because this is not one all over the book community. In fact, I’ve only seen Olive from bookolive talk about it, but she just sold it so damn well that, on coming across it at my local library, I couldn’t help my curiosity.
This novel follows an unnamed narrator and his quest to write a novel while maintaining relationships of some sorts with his best friend Julian McGann and his crush-hookup-maybe-slightly-manic-pixie-dreamgirl-but-also-friend-I-suppose-does-anyone-actually-like-her Evelyn. It jumps place a lot as the narrator travels around the world, always tormented by the absence of his literary success (or literally anything that would merit his life, as he just floats through abscure countries earning his living, drinking and not letting go of the two single-most pretentious people ever to enter a book, Julian and Evelyn).
It’s weird, but you’ll quickly see that plot isn’t really the dealbreaker here anyways. What this is marketed as really effectively is
1) brilliant literary writing and
2) a tour-de-force of unreliable narration.
So let’s talk about those.
1) The writing. I went into this the way I always do when I expect a book to be exquisitely written: ready to savor every syllable. And I wouldn’t say that was completely misplaced, because Jansma without a doubt put a lot of thought into the word-composing.
It’s just not a brilliant success in moments where I can literally feel him yield a sentence in form. There’s loads of bits where I forgot his presence and genuinely liked the writing, but when I didn’t, it really pissed me off.
Still I was ready to label it fairly well-written until I read the very last few pages, which just felt crude and badly crafted and really pulled down my impression of the entire thing. Also, I’m not sure how much of that is conscious but whenever there’s excerpts of what the characters in the novel have written (yes, I know, talking about it twists your perception) it’s just shit. Like hands down complete rubbish.
2) The unreliable narrator-ism. I WAS SO DISAPPOINTED BY THIS.
Everyone just kept talking about the narrator’s constant lies and blending fiction and fact and I was so ready to have my mind messed with by him. He just didn’t.
Yes, the way he creates fiction was fascinating to put into relation with what you’re told and what is implied, but I wanted moments of complete mind-blown-overwhelmed-being and just kept waiting.
So yes, this didn’t give me everything I wanted from it. Or really, anything I wanted from it. Still, I wouldn’t say it was terrible or I dragged through it. I just kept waiting for more, and maybe that made me miss the brilliant implications, but I just thought it was an okay-done super weird (in a fun-there’s jungles and palaces and ice and drugs and Russian fishing huts in it-way) but slightly overambitious novel composition with a shit ending. Not really bad, because great bits, but not great either, because really bad bits.