When asked if we want to know the truth about something, most of us would say yes. We consider the truth to be the morally superior choice and the choice of the strong. Information, after all, is power. We want things represented accurately, researched thoroughly, precisely described.
But what does it mean to seek the truth? To describe something fully, with the closest possible accuracy, or to aim for a digestible reality without too many confusing details—more of a single bite? Does our conditioning render it impossible to experience the same thing twice? And what about those who believe the truth cannot reached by verisimilitude, who strive continually to create something new in order to obliquely approach what really happened?
When I graduated college, those questions were on my mind as my father delivered his parting advice. Like many fathers before him, he quoted Polonius in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” But my father was an engineer, not an English major. He believed in a less heady version of reality. A builder with a mathematical mind, he did not invert word order or say things that were vague or archaic. Did my father really just quote Shakespeare?
I think he meant, “Remember where you come from.” It was funny because at the time, I was in the process of moving as far away from home as possible. I didn’t really know much about New York, but I knew one thing I liked: it was not located in the state of Georgia. Going away, I was hoping to find a better version of myself. Perhaps I was already out there somewhere, twinned and perfected on the corner of 5th and Bowery, a parallel life waiting to be lived.
When I picked up The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Kristopher Jansma’s debut novel, I was hooked by the introduction, which takes place in an airport and concludes with these words:
Each of these stories are true, but only somewhere else.
In this series of adventures, a resourceful young writer of limited means sets out to live an adventurous and limitless life. He circumnavigates the globe, encountering strange and improbable obstacles, but a strong narrative voice propels the story forward and unifies this exquisite corpse of a travel adventure. Frankly, it’s a lot of fun. The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a writer’s read, full of self-references and plays on the art of storytelling, as well as the creator’s constant search for identity. The narrator never reveals his name, only pseudonyms given along his journeys, from Manhattan to Dubai to Sri Lanka to the frozen hell-pit of a writer’s colony in Iceland. You can rest assured that if Jansma introduces an animal in the title, it will have bitten him by the end. When the snow is too deep for the narrator to continue walking, he makes a sled with the only thing available, a crate of expensive wine. That’s just the kind of guy he is.
But there are glimpses of Kansas along the yellow brick road. In Sri Lanka, the narrator meets a beautiful green-eyed editor, and tells her his name is Outis—meaning Nobody. But the editor, being his match in literary lore, gets the joke. She recalls that when the Cyclops Polyphemus asks Odysseus his name, Odysseus tells him Outis. When Odysseus blinds the Cyclops, he called for help, saying, “Outis—Nobody—is killing me.”
Throughout the novel, there are satisfying artifacts of truth delivered by the author, who can be detected crawling lightly above the narrative like a spider. I found myself more than willing to join in the fun. When a guest lecturer with vodka on his breath tells a class of young writers to become doctors or security guards—anything but writers—the reader can see the scaffolding on which Jansma will string his web. After all, what writer hasn’t heard that advice? Gathered in educational institutions, idealistic teenagers just embarking on the cycle of debt, writers are generally told to pick another profession. One that will pay the bills that will be tossed at them like grenades their entire lives. The profession of a writer was for inhabitants of that foreign country, the venerable past.
But the guest lecturer also goes on to dispense some unconventional advice. “Happiness,” he says gravely, “is making love for as long as you can stand it to the most luminous thing you can find on this rotten corpse of a planet!” He then collapses into a fit of tears. As it turns out, he is upset that his novel has just been rejected by a publisher. A word of warning to the students. But the real lesson comes a few pages later, when the narrator’s best friend and rival (called here Julian, who goes on to become a famous and solitary genius named Jeremy) wins a fiction contest—and is asked to read the story out loud in front of the family to which the “real” story actually happened.
Are we truly the sum of our experiences? Am I what I do—an ex-assistant, a struggling writer, and an artist working in a basement studio? Or am I where I am from—the world’s largest small town, a sea of Chevy Tahoes and Targets and Outback Steakhouses? Or am I what I have bought—French cowboy boots (40% off), Trader Joe’s wine (by the box), and sample sale gowns that I will never, ever have a place to wear?
Richard Tuttle said, “In our culture there is a job for art, because we can’t experience reality anywhere else.”
In New York, the city where artists can no longer afford to live, we still love artists. We love an artist who dreams a dream and makes it bigger. Not long ago, Thomas Hirschhorn created an installation depicting a room after a disaster. The show was called Concordia, Concordia (suggesting the cruise ship that sunk off the coast of Italy). Life rafts littered the floor, along with overturned chairs, piles of china plates, tangled packing tape, and a full size replica of the painting, The Raft of the Medusa. Judging from the chandeliers jutting from the walls of the gallery, the floor you were standing on was once the ship’s wall. The ship had capsized. The message, according to Hirschhorn, was to give form to the concept: contrary to the slogan, when something was too big, it must fail. But then there was the irony: the exhibit was, after all, in one of Chelsea’s biggest galleries. Critically, the exhibit was a big success.
I walked into Freight and Volume the other day and came upon a smaller installation, a room created by the art duo Black Lake that suggested the decadent ruins of a party. It was smaller than Hirschhorn’s exhibit, but it sparkled. It too was not reality, but a suggestion of a travel through art. It got me thinking back to the reasons I moved here, the shadows of the future that I saw like the glitter-crusted instruments in this room. Seeing the props, I imagined the event.
When I discovered this novel, I recognized the search. Not the details of things that really happened—dinner arrived at 6pm; we wore tails. But the reality of art that makes life worth living, seeking the truth obliquely through glamorous hyperbole. A writer who dreams a dream and makes it bigger. Daniel Mendelsohn has said, “If you can watch a real lonely suburban housewife yearning after young hunks on a reality dating show, why bother with Emma Bovary?”
Readers would say, “Because of Flaubert.”
There is one very famous artwork mentioned in the novel, Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Column. The narrator has traveled the globe in search of his friend Julian / Jeffrey, who has gone into Pynchonesque hiding after the success of his “genius” first novel (a success that weighs heavily on the narrator, who has not finished his own). At one point he finds himself tucked away in a writer’s colony in Iceland. There is no sunrise or sunset to mark the passage of time, and the only way he knows a new day has begun is by “an odd piercing column of light” that appears for a few hours and is gone again. There is a vague suggestion that this might be a false sunrise, or the diffused light of a sun that does not pierce the northern horizon at this time of year, but the reader later learns that in a beautiful metaphor he has been marking his days using Yoko Ono’s tribute to love.
It turns out that the reclusive Jeffrey is indeed cloistered away at the colony and has been composing a lipogrammatic novel without using the letters c, q, w, and z. This is a clever nod to past experiments, including Georges Perec’s La Disparition, but Jeffrey is not writing this as an exercise of cleverness: the Icelandic typewriter, like the Icelandic language, does not have these letters. The colony’s caretaker, typical of supervising authorities in the novel, is nowhere to be found. Later, the reader discovers that this person has left the colony to promote his own recently completed novel and sent the letter announcing this intention to his own office, where the narrator finds it, unopened.
What is The Unchanging Spots of Leopards about? About travel. About adventure. About glamor, which is mostly the pursuit of glamor, and excitement. The fearless narrator partakes in a series of wilder and more exciting adventures until, reaching the pinnacle of excitement, he finds it does not meet his expectations. From a distance, these enchanting worlds seem real, but when you get close enough, you that each of the inhabitants are like a Chinese kite, seen as different creatures from different angles.
The travels of the narrator recall one more literary journey: the travels of Marco Polo through Kublai Khan’s empire in Invisible Cities. Italo Calvino’s book stands out as an object as well as language: it is a slim book, written with a full two inches of white space in each margin, giving the text the drifting quality of a dream or island. Like Jansma’s book, it describes invented cities that the narrator claims are real:
Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches. “Journeys to relive your past?” was the Khan’s question at this point, a question which could also have been formulated: “Journeys to recover your future?” And Marco’s answer was, “Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”
What Polonius actually meant was, “don’t lie to yourself.” But don’t we all really believe that deep down, we are not who we seem? Inside of us, there are not administrative assistants and bartenders begging to be let out. There are glamorous adventurers, wearers of exotic perfumes, dashing heroes known for their suave manners as well as their dangerous lifestyles. It is these latter stories that Jansma has chosen to write. And he writes with both obsession and precision, a kind of wild magpie-spider.
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a gleeful middle finger to the conventional wisdom dispensed to young writers like Pez from university dispensers: write what you know. At the very least, the meaning of that statement has gotten a lot broader.
I first encountered Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace when she posted it on her Facebook page. I knew exactly what it looked like as soon as I read the title. If photography and film changed the way writers described scenes, the Internet has changed the boundaries of access. I virtually visited Iceland while I was checking my subway stop in Brooklyn.
Following the breadcrumbs to the end of the novel, the reader is surprised to feel a sense of arcing back. The pursuit of glamor and excitement leads him right back to where he started from. Having followed his lost love to the country of Luxembourg, the narrator reveals the country’s motto: “We wish to remain what we are.” Is this a neat wrapping-up of a story that wanted to be uncontainable: an acknowledgment of a journey completed, a lesson learned? Or is this book not really the tale of a glamorous life lived, but about a man learning to begin it?
I think it’s best summed up in the words of Kathy Acker: “When I was a child, I longed to travel into, to live in wonder. Now, I know, as much as I can know anything, that to travel into wonder is to be wonder. So it matters little whether I travel by plane, by rowboat, or by book. Or, by dream. I do not see, for there is no I to see. That is what the pirates know. There is only seeing and, in order to go to see, one must be a pirate.”