Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
by Kristopher Jansma

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards exists within the lies we tell ourselves and the lies others choose to believe. In this stunning first novel, Kristopher Jansma has accomplished a narrative feat by making the reader embrace bewilderment and questions of identity.

To properly summarize Leopards is to run the risk of spoiling its magic, but our young male narrator has yearned for notoriety ever since his flight attendant mother would leave him waiting in the concourse while she worked, depending upon other airport employees to watch him. The boy would write and write, desiring great words that would impress those around him. By impressing them, he wishes to earn their love.

We think we know his name, and then we are not sure. The process continues, and the boy ages — “growing up” is not entirely the correct term, for he still has not quite figured out who he is, or if the love he feels for a special woman is a love for her or just love for love's sake. He and his best friend exchange stories, and though they are often in competition with each other, their devotion remains — until finally, their friendship breaks:

“[...] You project these fantasies onto us. It's fun playing the people you think we are, but this is where it stops. This isn't some story anymore; this is her life. And you don't get to do this. You don't get to.”
And for once I thought I knew exactly what was running through Julian's mind. He was out of his mind, of course. But underneath that was something else. Something I'd never seen before, but that had always been there, whenever he'd looked at me, from the very first day: he pitied me. Not in the same snobby way that he pitied everyone and everything, but because I had no idea who I really was. He'd seen me all along, like a moth fluttering repeatedly against a windowpane. He'd grown attached to me, gotten to know the pattern of my wings against the glass. I'd always been on the other side of it, though. I'd been circling out there for so long that I'd forgotten.
Our narrator lives many lives, meets many people, and he travels the world, but we are not quite able to sort the likely true story from the fabrications until we are further into the book. That's part of the fun. Jansma writes in such a thrilling, beautiful way that we are on the same expeditions, enjoying the ride. He makes us want to go wherever he has deemed necessary, no matter if we have adequate clues towards our destination.

Running through all these questions of self are the questions directed towards the craft of writing. At what point do we learn to disregard what others are doing? When do we learn to sit down and tell the story we need to tell? Writerly insecurity is no new topic, of course, but in this unreliable narrator's hands, I enjoyed the perspective. There's also a bit near the beginning that is the narrator's short story that also contains a novel excerpt. When other critics compare Leopards to Russian matroshka dolls, it's apt.

While insecurity and identity are indeed weighty topics, the novel can be very funny at times, too.

“You know, Julian asked me to spy on you. Find out what you were writing for this contest tomorrow.”
Julian was nervous about what
I had written?
“He said he read your story, while you were in the bathroom or something. The one about the flight attendant's kid? And that it was so good he started his over. And then he saw you'd started yours over, and so he started his over again. I swear, I love him, but he's completely insane sometimes.”
“Well, you can tell him I've got nothing,” I said moodily. “Tell him to get a good night's sleep because both of my stories suck and I can't write another word.”
All of the emphasized words reminded me of the dialogue in Salinger's Franny and Zooey, which is fantastic.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is not terribly long for a novel, which makes it all the more amazing that Kristopher Jansma is able to weave together so much simultaneous information and mystery. I loved it, and I will eagerly await any other books he may release in the future.

Full Disclosure: Viking/Penguin Books sent me this as a review copy. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.


This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

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