Book blurbs are naturally and notoriously hyperbolic, but the one crowning the back of Kristopher Jansma’s debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, might take the puffed-up cake. Author Darin Strauss (More Than It Hurts You) writes, “The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is my new exhibit A for the defense of literary fiction.”
Let’s talk about that word, “literary,” and the critical praise Leopards has generated.
Leopards qualifies as literary in the sense that it keys on a writer-protagonist who has filled his book (spoiler/cliché alert: the protagonist has written The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards) with a bottomless array of literary and fictiony references that will rub any bookworm’s belly in a very comforting and encouraging I-eat-this-stuff-up-too kind of way.
We have epigraphs from, anecdotes about and allusions to Donne, Emerson, Hemingway, Poe, Shakespeare, Shelley, etc. We get talk of slamming into a creative wall, the festering jealousy of reading a peer’s work and wishing you’d written it, holing up at a writers’ colony, teaching. The gang’s all here, Moleskine notebooks in hand. As Heller McAlpin writes in her NPR Books review, Leopards “is mainly a book about writing—which may appeal most to literati.”
Besides the obvious, these sorts of stories (including, among countless others: Adaptation; Big Fish; The Brothers Bloom; The Confidence Man; Life of Pi; The Perks of Being a Wallflower; Ruby Sparks; Stranger Than Fiction; Synecdoche, New York; and The Unwritten) appeal to literati. They suggest … if not state outright … that the reading and writing of stories matter not just in a small sweet artsy way, but in ways that can have a direct, even deadly impact on our lives. (Prominent characters die in many of the examples cited above, often as a result of something that happens in a ‘fictional’ world [within a larger fictional world].)
And these sorts of stories validate—no, they empower—literati to read stories about stories. Why? Because they level the playing field of fiction and reality. And why does it matter? Consider this Harvard Business Review study that suggests reading fiction is no trivial pursuit, as so many strict (and vocal) nonfiction readers claim, but that fiction actually boosts one’s empathy and emotional intelligence. Nothing buoys a devourer and/or producer of fiction quite like hearing, “Hey, you’re not wasting your time. This stuff matters.”
It should surprise no one, then, that Leopards has received strong critical reviews. Book critics = bookworms; Leopards rubs their bellies.
But I suspect the book’s appeal will spread beyond the worms, to the masses. One reason: Leopards, like most of the abovementioned meta-narratives and con man yarns, features an unreliable narrator who demands the audience’s attention, as he refuses to delineate where the fiction ends and the truth begins.
Even if one does not necessarily gravitate towards these stories (I do), they rarely drag because one must hash out what’s happening. It keeps the gears spinning. In other words, muddying the plot waters via a dubious narrator forces the audience to interact with a story—to ask questions as events unfold—instead of mentally checking out, fat and happy in the knowledge that the work will spoonfeed every relevant morsel.
Plus, Leopards pounces from North Carolina to New York City to the Grand Canyon to Dubai to Sri Lanka to Ghana to Iceland. Who doesn’t love a little globetrotting? It makes even a mundane account feel epic, like a quest—and Jansma’s cheeky sense of humor, while not my cup of tea, will likely appeal to fans of a hugely popular novel that also blurs the lines between fiction and reality: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.
So, most people will like this book. I get that.
But I don’t like this book. Mainly, I don’t like the writing, which feels about 75 percent pop and 25 percent literary to me, whatever that means and for whatever that is worth. (Each of these fictions evokes porn in this sense: I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it. Of course, pop fiction sometimes evokes porn in a more literal sense.)
Lines like “Her eyes were bored; they bore right through me” are groan-worthy enough on their own without then running into “She gives me a look—a pitiful, pitying look,” which makes each phrase feel not only forced but recycled. Also inducing eye rolls: reading that a book “has more dog-ears than the Westminster Kennel Club.” And hearing the narrator, fighting for his life, say, “What kills me the most—pun most definitely not intended…” (If a pun remains, its author intended it. One can pardon or, usually ideally, remove it. A good pun can tickle, even impress, but the reader sees this one coming a mile away, like a large acquaintance who always pops in at the least opportune moment.)
Likewise, reading of a girl “quite pale, white as blank paper,” or a woman “more radiant than the desert sunlight, more magnificent than the canyon beneath it” does not excite or surprise me. I don’t know what it means when a tobacco smells “sweet, like dark secrets,” and I don’t need to know that our computer-savvy protagonist “nimbly tap[ped] back a reply” on his laptop. As opposed to what, clumsily? Slowly? If the author removes “nimbly,” given that our narrator is a young man in fine fettle, doesn’t the reader assume the nimbly? I assume the nimbly. I don’t proscribe adverbs by rule, but I think we can cut the nimbly.
Jansma’s excessive use of italics (“What I realize quickly is that nearly all of them are reading. Reading books”) also distracts. Another small thing, yes, but when several italics crop up on every other page (they run even more rampant over stretches of dialogue), the inflections grow infuriating. I like reading, not being told how to read. Then again, perhaps this is Jansma’s winking way of ‘slanting’ the truth—one of the book’s themes.
Which brings us to those themes …
Ostensibly this ever-shifting novel (the characters’ names and backstories change throughout, via our illusive narrator) comments on “the blurred lines between fact and fiction, discovering the shades of truth that lie in between” (Publishers Weekly). But what or where are these “shades of truth”? Why should I care whether a man’s name is Anton or Julian? Whether a woman married a Japanese royal or the Prince of Luxembourg? What sort of greater truth do we expose by tweaking a bunch of minor details?
My big takeaway from Leopards has nothing to do with “the blurred lines between fact and fiction.” It’s that people don’t change. The narrator lies from a young age, fictionalizing and romanticizing his life. His friend Anton/Julian calls him out on it, and the narrator only falls deeper into fantasy. At the end, after all the twists and pivots and (spoiler/heavy-handed metaphor alert) big cat attacks, the narrator still flees from reality, still opts to live a fiction or series of fictions.
If I appreciated Jansma’s writing, I’m sure the myriad literary allusions and epigraphs, the globehopping and lies all would delight me. But because the writing feels gimmicky and strained, the story follows suit.
In the end, an alleged meta-narrative about the stories/lies we tell ourselves and each other turns out to be—for one reader, anyway—a lesson not about which stories we tell or why we tell them … but how.
Evan Allgood (@evoooooooooooo) is deputy editor of Trop. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s, LA Review of Books, and Paper Darts. His short plays have been produced all over the place. He lives in Brooklyn.