Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Book Review: "The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards" by Kristopher Jansma

"These stories are all true, but only somewhere else."

So says the narrator of Kristopher Jansma's appealing yet frustrating novel-in-stories, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. From an early age, he wanted to be a writer, and he simply can't stop reinventing himself and the situations around him. As a teenager in North Carolina, he introduces himself as a character in a Wilkie Collins novel when pressed into service escorting a girl he is enamored with to her debutante ball. In college in the Berkshires, he meets the eccentric and talented Julian McGann, a flamboyant writer whose skill inspires rivalry and inspiration—Julian's career reaches great heights, while the narrator finds himself benefiting only when Julian's mania gets the best of him.

But in addition to the inspiration Julian provides, he also introduces the narrator to the beautiful Evelyn, a world-weary actress with whom he becomes quickly enamored. Evelyn is certainly fond of the narrator, but enjoys the control she has over him, and the two have an on-again, off-again relationship for years. When Evelyn finally decides to get married, the behavior of Julian and the narrator lead to the trio having a falling out that lasts for more than 10 years.

That's where the book falls off the rails, in my opinion. Suddenly the narrator is impersonating a college professor, telling tales to a newlywed couple in Dubai, writing papers for college students in Sri Lanka, searching for his Salinger-esque friend in Ghana and at a writer's retreat in Iceland, and tracking his one true love (or is she?) in Luxembourg. Julian McGann is now inexplicably called Jeffrey Oakes, and Evelyn's wedding to an Indian scientist somehow is transmogrified into a wedding with a prince from Luxembourg. And the conclusion, in the same airport where the book began, is a little magical but a little perplexing.

I think Jansma is a terrific writer, and I loved the first half of the book. The relationships between the characters, the adventures they found themselves in, the rivalry between writers, all were compelling and enjoyable. But when you have a main character who is more enamored with reinventing the truth at every turn, you don't know what to believe, or when what you're reading will suddenly turn into something else. I kept waiting for some sort of explanation about which parts were true—was his friend's name Julian or Jeffrey? Who did Evelyn marry? But the narrator, and the book, were mum on these details.

I love books that leave you guessing, and I love those that challenge the truth, but I struggled with this book because it never tied things up for me. Perhaps it was never meant to. But in the end, I thought this was a book with tremendous potential that sadly (and somewhat frustratingly) was never realized.

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