Reading Kristopher Jansma’s rollicking debut novel, “The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards,” is a little like trying to count the lines in a bar code; pretty hard to keep track of everything unless you’re using a pencil.
The easiest place to start might be with the title, which is obvious enough — a leopard’s spots aren’t supposed to change.
In two instances in the novel, the leopard’s spots are in question, though. In Sri Lanka, the media has mistranslated the word for leopard into English as “tiger.” The Sri Lankans don’t want to go against what they hear on TV, so they begin to call leopards tigers until finally a new word has to be reassigned to mean leopard.
“Spots changed into stripes. All it took was just one serendipitous mistake.” The narrator repeatedly takes advantage of serendipitous mistakes to change his spots into stripes, so to speak.
Later, a man the narrator nicknames Black Panther says that a panther is a black leopard. “From a distance they appear to be all black, and yet — if you’ve got the nerve to get a close look — you can see that they actually still have their normal markings. Their spots.”
We never learn the first-person narrator’s real identity, though he assumes many names — from when we meet him at 8 years old until the close of the novel when he’s in his mid-30s. And his two rich-kid best friends, Ev, an actress, and Julian, a writer, eventually become the “Princess of Luxembourg” and “Jeffrey.”
No problem. We can deal with some name changes, right?
But do these changes, and an abundance of lies, make the narrator unreliable? Julian/Jeffrey says the narrator is a “solipsistic son of a bitch.” Solipsism is the theory that the self is all there is and can only know “its own modifications.”
So, I’m going to go to bat for this character and say he’s not unreliable, just solipsistic. This story ticks along rapidly on the narrator’s gilded watch, sometimes the seconds seem to reverse direction, a few times the seconds stand still, and at least once the seconds vanish into a canyon, and all the while he’sbecoming
. “He can’t know he is the same unless everything around him has changed.”
The narrator positions Ev and Jeffrey as the second and third points of triangulation in his attempt to pinpoint who he is — a GPS wouldn’t stand a chance.
When he lives in Dubai, he says something in the air “Makes you want to fold stories inside of stories inside of stories,” which is what we have here. The type font changes to alert the reader to a new story within the story, and sometimes another story within that.
Regardless of shifts in lettering or names, the story remains the same: The narrator struggles to write the tale of his love for the woman and his friendship with the man in an attempt to find his own place in the world and his own identity.
The narrator reflects on growing up, a person’s passing through time, and, in effect, summarizes the novel. He says that when a child looks back on his life, his experiences will almost seem like something he’s read about.
“He’ll know they happened to him but they may well have happened to another person, with another name, in some other place, where the clocks are on other times. In the story of tonight he’ll be himself, but costumed in the gentle lies of memory and the soft fictions of yesterdays.”
Jansma draws heavily from Ernest Hemingway and Wilkie Collins, an unlikely set. Hemingway provides the scenery and the alcohol, and Collins provides the twists, the turns, the doppelgangers, and the characters who have lost the claim to their own names.
A lot is happening in this book, and if you enjoy teasing apart knots and spotting literary references you will certainly enjoy it.