In writing The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Kristopher Jansma broke every rule he’d been taught in Writers Workshop – the first one being, “You can’t write a book about writers.”
“Why not?” Jansma asked. “I think you can.” And he did.
The friendship/rivalry between our unnamed narrator and Julian/Jeffrey (yep, you’re going to have to double back a few times with this book) reminds me of Meg Wolitzer’s frenemies in The Interestings. These two care for each other deeply – our narrator searches the world for Julian, having a near-death experience, losing several manuscripts in progress and also a love interest – but there’s more to the novel than his misadventures. Really, this is a novel about identity – identity and sanity and how much of one you give up for the sake of the other. This is a novel about fiction and truth, about conscience and falsehood, about justification and inner peace. And it asks the question: if you have your own warped logic for doing things – your own distorted reasons for divulging and lying in equal measure – does that make your actions morally sound?
Jansma doesn’t give his narrator a name but perhaps that’s just as well – because it keeps changing, according to his whims. The truth does too and the story as it unfolds. One reviewer quite rightly called Leopards a “matroshka doll of a story” because each chapter reveals another layer, as it organically sheds from the previous one. A lot of the time you don’t know where the story is going or what you’re about to read – you just sort of have to suspend disbelief – put yourself in Jansma’s hands and allow him to lead.
Those that like traditional narratives – or those that shy away from experimental, post-modern fiction – might not enjoy this story. Because Leopards is frustrating a lot of the time (even if it’s entertaining all of the time). I myself am one of those readers who doesn’t like to feel unmoored while reading – and even having finished I can’t say I “got” all of what Jansma was doing. But I do have respect for the way he broke away from tradition, did his own thing and now has a best-selling novel to show for it. Leopards is inventive, to say the least. Even if I don’t have much of an imagination (my MFA is in nonfiction, remember?) I can still give it up for Jansma and his tall tale-ing.
Many thanks to Viking Penguin for my review copy!