How much more unreliable can a narrator be than one who doesn’t even tell readers his name? One who frankly confesses throughout his story that he steals identities, forges work for other people, cheats his best friend, and writes a novel about an unreliable narrator who frankly confesses, etc., etc.
Kristopher Jansma sustains this difficult literary trick throughout his first novel. Our nameless guide tells us the tale of his thwarted literary career from his first completed story (thrown in the trash by a detective investigating the death of an old man) through his final manuscript. Along the way he commits a series of petty criminal acts that keep him questionably employed and replete with material he just can’t form into a book.
His life is overshadowed by frustration: there’s the flight attendant mother who leaves him in the care of various shopkeepers on the concourse of the Raleigh airport, a sports career and college opportunities stifled by a lack of resources, a lack of contacts and resources to support himself as he tries to develop his talent. He has two chief frustrations, though: his best friend/literary competitor Julian McGann, who has everything he lacks, and Julian’s friend Evelyn, a beautiful and talented actress with the world at her feet. Evelyn toys with his love for her, while Julian drinks himself into a stupor and an endless series of one-night stands with strange men. When this unlikely triangle collapses, he is thrown out on his own.
Stumbling out into the world he practices his only skill – writing fiction – on other people, taking up and discarding identities to move himself from one tenuous living to another. Staying barely ahead of his collapsing lies, he travels across the world until destiny seems to take a hand in his affairs. The novel ends on a high note, bringing the reader right back to an odd message printed in the front material.
Jansma has written a stellar work of metafiction, with enough sleight-of-hand to make the reader wonder if somewhere along the way he has misread some aspect of the events or characters (Was it golf he played, or tennis? What was that person’s real name?). Some of the settings border on the fantastic, making us wonder if they actually existed. And there is at least one character we pity, because she is not privy to the truth of the narrator’s world.
That is not to say that the work is some self-conscious experiment in LITERARITUDE. It is an engaging, often funny, and sometimes tragic story told by a man who is upfront about his dishonesty and lies, but who has no intention of causing harm. Despite his flaws, he rises to the occasion and proves himself heroic in his own small way, and as the book ends, I guarantee that you’ll turn back to the first page.
Check the WRL catalog for The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards