Reviewed by Susanna Daniel
At the start of Kristopher Jansma’s slippery and energetic debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, the unnamed narrator tells about his childhood spent in Terminal B of an American airport, making up stories — he will be a writer, of course — about passengers and the shop people who oversee him while he waits for his flight attendant mother, whose questionable parenting choices are almost all we ever learn about her.
Like most literary orphans, the boy is plucky and precocious, and one dramatic afternoon he learns that the grownups who have been distractedly looking out for him regard him less with affection and amusement than annoyance and pity. It’s an experience the narrator will continue to have throughout the the book: first he sees himself through one funhouse mirror, then through a different and equally distorted one. And the reader never knows which perspective to believe.
The twists and turns of the novel’s plot, which spans three decades, veer confidently into familiar literary territory, jockeying nimbly between bildungsroman and rags-to-riches and love triangle and caper. The setting jumps just as agilely — New York, Dubai, Sri Lanka, Iceland — as does the narrative style: one chapter is an unbroken monologue told to a couple of tourists in a hotel.
Before he is thirty-five, the narrator has remade himself half a dozen times. He is a liar of many stripes: identity thief, plagiarist, heartbreaker, and author. Like many authors, however, he’s far more enchanted with the notion of having written a book than the act of actually writing one, and therein lies the rub. On one of its many levels, this is a book about how to avoid writing a book.
The novel is rapid in pace, the language and details tightly controlled. Each time the story swerves into well-trod literary territory, the swerve is embraced fully. (Waiting on a train platform, the narrator not only invokes Hemingway, but also shares a local liquor with another American tourist who, to take it all the way, quotes from “Hills Like White Elephants.”) The few characters who break into the narrator’s self-involved bubble are quirky and colorful without ever becoming entirely of-the-flesh; this is more a story of hijinks than of hearts. Even this reader, who admittedly prefers a more reliable narrator, found myself rooting for the storyteller. He’s a liar and a thief, sure, but he’s also an underdog with more nerve than he’s earned.
At the center of the ever-shifting story is the question of truth — slanted, as the narrator professes to prefer it, or altogether disassembled. Each chapter spins a more outlandish yarn that the last, leaving the reader with the sense that the truth is sliding around even as the book sits closed on the shelf.
It’s tremendous fun, this book. One might wish for a little more of a typical debut’s raw, hard-beating heart, but what the book lacks in heart it makes up for in exuberance.
Viking Adult, March 2013 ISBN 9780670026005
Susanna Daniel is the author of STILTSVILLE, winner of the PEN/Bingham Prize for debut fiction, and SEA CREATURES, forthcoming in July 2013 from HarperCollins. Visit her website at http://www.susannadaniel.com.