Literary fiction gets a bad rap. It doesn’t have to be ponderous, inscrutable, unreadable. Literary fiction doesn’t have to mean some doorstop of a book that will be earnestly discussed in quiet voices on NPR, the kind of thousand-page novel that everyone buys and no one reads. Literary fiction can be more than just a marker of elite taste – literary fiction can be fun, inventive and playful. It can have a plot. It can be enjoyed.
Authors like Michael Chabon, TC Boyle and Gary Shteyngart demonstrate that you can write sophisticated fiction that’s loved by the public.
Kristopher Jansma shows how its done in The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. This debut novel, now available in paperback, follows the worldwide travels of the ultimate unreliable narrator. It’s like ten books in one – a Southern coming of age story, an academic farce, a New York excursion and an expat’s tall tale – propelled forward by neatly contained chapters (which are like stories within stories). The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is compulsively readable, filled with oddball characters, strange situations and sudden turns of fate, all told by a sort of Nick Carroway, looking on enviously at the Gatsbys all around him.
My only criticism: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards switches scenes too quickly. Plot threads are picked up and dropped. Sometimes, you want to know more about that couple in Dubai. You want more – a good sign in a novel.
Ultimately, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a book about stories, the ones that are true, and the ones we tell ourselves. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson says, a mantra that runs throughout this novel. With their ability to tell it slant, novels contain truths that you won’t find in the newspaper.
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards demonstrates the power of literary fiction to provide enlightenment through entertainment. Great storytelling is a kind of trick, an ancient one that we’re programmed to enjoy. Like listening to some stranger’s shaggy dog tale, we know that what we’re hearing is not technically true. But we have to know how it ends. Great literary fiction is like that, wrapping us up in an engaging story that tells it slant.