Oh my. Today I have finished an incredible piece by the debut author, Kristopher Jansma, and I must say, oh my. At once moving and enrapturing and crushing, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is written for us, for writers, and it sings our fears, our hopes, our fondest dreams through the romping, transcontinental trekking of Jansma’s love-struck narrator. He is nameless but for the few pseudonyms he gives to others out of some sort of idiosyncratic, possibly pathological tendency he has to lie to people he has just met. Is he…Walter? Or Timothy? Billy? Well, even without the name set in stone, we get the gist of his character: An insecure, somewhat self-deprecating cynic with the occasional romantic idealism and a moral compass that rests off-center.
He tells his own story–of stories built into stories,the ones he has both written and experienced as parts of his own life, and of his own journey as a person and as a writer. He tells of his friendship with the eccentric and fantastic Julien McGann/Jeffrey Oakes, and his “love” for the golden-haired stage actress Evelyn Demont, his friend and lover who passes over his affection repeatedly, always seeking again the richer, more acclaimed suiter–an olympic athlete, a prince, a duke, or a famous geologist.
Full of quaint gimmicks and charming tricks, Leopards is a lost story, sneakily noted at the front of the book after the contents: “If you believe that you are the author of this book, please contact Haslett & Grouse Publishers (New York, New York) at your first convenience.”
The story begins with the remark from the narrator that he has lost every book he has ever written, starting with one he wrote as a child, waiting on his flight attendant mother at the airport. From there, the story spirals out with loss: the loss of his next story, the loss of his first girlfriend, the loss of his best friend, then his lover. The entire first half of the book is listed in the contents as “What Was Lost” and records quite intimately his making and unmaking, as the narrator builds himself riding the coattails of his rich friends, only to sloppily toss it all in a moment of heat.
Our narrator resides cozily in the ease of Julian McGann’s confidence. Being one of the only people Julian can stand, and thus, one of the only people who can possibly keep up with and mind after him, the narrator stays close, sharing Julian’s flat and saving him from bouts of mania and drinking, and desperately snatching glances at his friend’s pieces. Jealously, they look on at each other’s stories and try to steal from each other, only to find such merit in the other’s work that their own can never compare. Meanwhile, every Sunday the two meet with Evelyn Demont, the beautiful and sophisticated stage actress who “adopted” Julian when they met in prep school. And every Sunday, Evelyn attempts to bring a friend–a girl in the hopes that perhaps the narrator will fall for her friend and move on, or a boy, in an attempt to test her new beau’s fitness against the judgment of her closest friends. Then the narrator takes the invited girls to the zoo to try and make Evelyn jealous. And always the narrator loses something. They are changeless in the errors they make, and they cycle around, upsetting themselves and each other endlessly. At least, that is until the narrator finally loses what matters most: his friends.
Amidst the mess that the narrator composes from the shambles of his life is a fairly true account of the writerly mind, the competition between good friends, the struggle to write and write well, to be published, and the dissatisfaction that one must push through just to reach completion.
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant” proclaims the narrator’s writing professor, quoting a line from Emily Dickinson. It is a line that the narrator must return to again and again as he tests the limits of this motto. How many lies can he spin from a single truth? It becomes difficult to track the number of aliases given to a single known person through the course of his tale, and there comes a time to wonder when he has finally given up treating the truth so. He fights for inspiration and researches constantly in order to keep up with Julian, whose gifts allow him to toe the line between brilliance and derangement.
“I was keenly aware of being both outraged and jealous at the same time. Why hadn’t I been able to come up with anything like this? Was this slant? This fantastic impossible dream? Made real with just the right words, with just the right sentences. Was I even capable of it? Or was Julian, as I’d feared, simply imbued with powers I would never possess?” (51)
But he cannot compete with his admiration of Julian, whom he idealizes too much to live up to–instead, the narrator cheats his way into a story, using his own real, personal experiences and memories and finessing small details.
“I furiously tapped away at the keys of my computer. Just two pages at first. Truth. And then five. Forget this slant business. And then twelve. Tell all the truth. And then a title. “The Trouble with Ibsen.” And then it was done” (48).
Yes, forget the slant. Dive right into the truth. But there is a problem with selling out one’s own stories, one’s personal life memories. They run dry; a friend might be offended; the line between reality and fiction becomes blurred. Jansma’s narrator sacrifices friendship for his stories and idealism, for a career and a love which will both always be just outside the touchable surface of his outstretched fingers.
Does he, in fact, love Evelyn? Or does he love his idea of her, of this fantastic girl, both sophisticated and untouchable, would-be royalty? Perhaps she is too pure and regal for him to contain in her entirety. He has form-fit her to the paper on which he prints his stories, and she has become so small to him that all that remains are the references to a gold-leafed nude portrait and the theme of a forbidden love. An ideal love. And as he struggles to convince Evelyn that there is something between them worth more than the comfort and luxury her husband will give her, the narrator can’t see through the trees for the cliff beyond. It is an entire life that he cannot give her, a point Julian tries to press on his deluded friend. The three split and their regular Sundays are a thing of the youth, forgotten for ten years to come.
The second half of the book is labeled “What was Found”, as if written to be a solution to the problematic mindset the young narrator develops in the first five chapters. Before, all he had was his jealousy and competition and forbidden love. But he lost all that. Now he must find something to take the place of what he lost, better, or maybe worse. When the narrator returns to the page, ten years have passed since he fell out with his friends and he has grown into the lifestyle he had began all those years ago, when he used to steal away with Evelyn’s lunch guests and feed them false identities, only to scare them away. He presents himself as a professor under a the name of a workshop friend, whose place he has taken at a community college. He teaches a journalism class on plagiarism and how the people secretly appreciate being the end-consumer of a lie. His entire existence is a lie built upon more lies, a mountain too high to climb down from.
When he tires of this he becomes a plagiarist of another kind, selling essays online to students, an easy, moral-less existence that funds his roaming from country to country. He is “Outis”, nobody. And he personally associates with few, if anyone. But his unusual lifestyle leads him to the first thing he finds, a new friend. Tina is the editor of Jeffrey Oakes novel, “Nothing Sacred”, a world-rocking debut novel that ups the ante for novel number two. Tina represents the second chance that the narrator never bothers to trying to reach. All he wants is the next big break, however small that may be, but with Tina there is the opportunity for much more. He doesn’t think of her, not as much more than a traveling companion and a business partner, but she wants to see him as more. With her, he makes the same mistakes he always has, proving the adage–you know what they say about spots and leopards. He can’t be open with her and he can’t be honest, and they both know it.
“She gives me a look–a pitiful, pitying look–and then I think she really would grab my heart from a funeral pyre. For a second I think I would grabs hers, too, but then she moves off into a darker part of the bar and is gone” (179).
And when he lets this second chance go, his options are out–if not for a fateful phone call, who knows where he would turn?
The mother of Jeffrey/Julian is concerned for her reclusive, fame-fearing son, and the only one who he can half-stand is the narrator. He follows her lead to a writers’ colony in Iceland in search of Jeffrey and what will become a real second chance, the place where he starts all over. The friend he let go nearly a decade ago needs him, and once together, they see through all the muddle of the past and present. Up to seeing his old friend, the narrator is mentally trapped inside the boundaries of a scene he cannot stop rewriting, cannot escape from, while Jeffrey hides from the fame and expectations of his adoring fans. It is a kind of madness that these two men suffer from, that is if you consider writing insane.
“There is anew, duller pain in my fingertips and toes that I suspect vaguely as probably frostbite….At first I think this may be some sort of sweet relief–a reprieve from writing the same scene over and over. But the writing over and over isn’t really a sign of madness. It’s the only thing letting the madness out” (199).
The narrator feels the cyclical trauma in his pursuit of writing, but it’s not writing that undoes him–rather, he undoes himself. Jeffrey helps him realize this, even as they revert to their old competitive ways, peering at each other’s unpolished chapters. They need each other to push through the negativity and madness within themselves, and pick out the good. Together, they set off to find the third musketeer, and the narrator’s third chance. It presents itself as the opportunity to sleep with his forbidden love, the Princess of Luxembourg. She is royal and married and mother of two, but her desires to see the good old days override all of this. The true test for a leopard, and a curious, not so subtle fold in of a twist in the theme:
“‘To say ‘Black Panther’ is redundant,'” says the princess’s guard, “‘…In Asia or Africa, a panther is a black leopard…they actually still have their normal markings. Their spots. They’re just not visible against a background that is also black'” (232).
Can the narrator change his spots after all? Is there a life as a panther in his future? He leaves a note for his princess, respectfully declining her advances. He has a missed opportunity to restore, a story to tell, a manuscript to write and lose.
Jansma’s writing is filled with clever, silly gimmicks like meta-storytelling and references to leopards all throughout. The narrator teasingly jokes to Evelyn that he feeds all her Sunday lunch guests to the leopards at the zoo. Jeffrey affectionately refers to her guard as “Black Panther” because he sports an Afro. And the last manuscript that the narrator loses is this one, the manuscript for “The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards” because how cute is it that when the reader opens the cover and sees the note on the first page and sees that the book was separated from its author, then reads to the end to discover how the author lost it in the first place. Other reviewers claim the characters are too difficult to relate to, probably because they aren’t writers themselves, though the lack of emotional engagement is unignorable, and the constant shifting of aliases is certainly distancing.
For the writer turned reader, the fun of this book is in reading all of the throw-backs to our favorite American authors like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and in referencing the travails of writers and the drama of being a writer, Leopards takes an almost satirical voice, nudging its readers with a knowing, you’ve been there and you know it wink.
But even the average reader can appreciate the cohesive turn-around Jansma spins with his themes from cover to cover, and the gimmicky qualities are quirky and endearing once you learn to accept that they are not going to disappear at any reasonable time. And despite that the narrator is morally bankrupt and occasionally cruel, there is something there to pity, to resonate with just slightly. From a humanistic vantage point, I wanted to see him grow up and see his friends again, and be in love again. I wanted to see him actually find what all he lost. And I believe that is as much of Jansma’s purpose with Leopards as anything else.
Jansma, Kristopher. The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. Viking Penguin, 2013: New York.