Monday, April 01, 2013

Book 40: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

I probably wouldn't have noticed this novel on my own if there hadn't been a certain amount of hype, all generated by one person, on both Facebook and Pajiba.  I'm sure I would have picked it up once it started making "Best of Lists" but the title and the description one their own would not have been enough to capture my attention.
The novel starts with a note asking for the author of the novel to contact the publishing firm before moving on to the author's note in which the novel's narrator tells the tale of how he lost his first book, and how he has lost everything he has ever written, alluding to future events, and wetting his audience's appetite.  From there, the novel starts with Part 1 or "What Was Lost", which begins with a story about the narrator escorting a debutante to a ball in place of her brother.  The chapters in this first part are in chronological order though there are large jumps in time, with the next chapter focusing on his first writing class in college being followed by a chapter about his life in a New York apartment about seven or eight years later.  This section of the novel also includes a piece of fiction that the narrator has written and had published, though it is obvious based on the previous chapter that this is a fictionalization of an event alluded to earlier.  After his writing class, the narrator has taken the idea "tell all the truth but tell it slant" (from a Emily Dickinson poem) as his guiding motto when it comes to writing.  As a result, while the chapters of this first part all seem very genuine and real, it is hard not to wonder if some of these stories are not quite what they appear.  For example, his best friend and writing rival accuses the narrator of having turned his friends into ideas and characters, and that he doesn't actually know them, but instead has placed them in certain roles in his head, such as the distant ice queen, and the crazy yet brilliant author.  In addition to his writing career, the novel charts the writer's relationship with Julian, the brilliant and better writer, and Evelyn, a stage actress and friend of Julian's that often sleeps with the narrator but won't actually commit to him.
Based on all this, I was enjoying the novel, and while it was superbly written, tying together certain themes and allusions throughout the chapters, it still appeared to mostly be a very well done tale of growing up and making one's way in the world with characters that aren't necessarily that likeable.  It wasn't until the second part where the narrator shifts the entire story and potentially changes the meaning of everything that came before that I quite understood why this was receiving such rave reviews.  It really is an amazing novel that explores ideas of truth and lies in writing and life.  Julian and the narrator draw their stories from other stories they know, life events they have lived through, and occasionally even flip each other for the right to use an event as a scene in their writing.  I don't want to give too much away since I quite enjoyed the ride the novel went on, and the questions it raised, but the story follows the narrator from a university in New York to various exotic locations including Sri Lanka and Africa as the narrator grapples with himself and the stories he tells himself.

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