What's a reader to believe, especially when confronted with an unreliable narrator? Which of the many versions spun by the self-confessed liar and aspiring writer in Kristopher Jansma's far-flung, deliberately far-fetched, hyper-inventive first novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, should we buy? Does the seductive actress he pines for marry a) an Indian geologist on the edge of the Grand Canyon; b) a Japanese royal; or c) a Luxembourg prince?
Of course, it's all fiction — a form of sanctioned lies — which Jansma nests in layers, delighting, as his narrator puts it, in "stories [folded] inside stories inside of stories."
At the core of Jansma's elaborate literary construction is a rather ordinary and familiar tale: An ambitious boy from a modest background latches on to a richer, more talented, more worldly, but less stable college classmate, alternately presented as Julian McGann, Jeffrey Oakes and Anton Prishibeyev. Even more prosaic, both are insecure, competitive aspiring novelists always sneaking peeks at and borrowing from the other's life and work. Worse still, Jansma's narrator suffers from unrequited love for Julian's boarding school pal, a dazzling stage actress who causes him much anguish by accepting the role of a lifetime: marrying one of the royals mentioned above.
We've seen all this before, haven't we? But not presented like this.
Jansma's convoluted plot, which hinges on three lost manuscripts, begins in Raleigh airport's Terminal B. This is where his narrator spent after-school hours, waiting for his single mother, a flight attendant, to claim him after work like some left-behind baggage. "I feel certain that somewhere in this empty space, between my lies and my fictions, is the truth," he writes, adding slyly, "These stories are all true, but only somewhere else."
His odyssey takes him from North Carolina to New York, Dubai, Sri Lanka, Ghana, and, perhaps strangest of all, a writer's colony in Iceland, adopting new identities along the way: a debutante's tony escort; an iconoclastic professor of journalism who borrows a former flat mate's name and delights students with lessons about plagiarism, "the new American art form"; and a man who uses the Greek tag "Outis" to peddle term papers online for cash.
Metafiction and unreliable narrators are hot these days — Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth also combined both. For Jansma, creating a compulsive prevaricator who crafts multiple, embellished versions of his experiences enables him to explore the blurred lines between fiction and truth. This reaches a dizzying complexity that borders on the tiresome with "Anton and I," a chapter that consists of the narrator's first published story — which is about losing the manuscript of his awful novel-in-progress (excerpted at length) down an ice-fishing hole while accompanying his vodka-poisoned friend, Julian, rechristened Anton, to Westchester County to consult a family doctor.
Couched in Jansma's wildly recursive fun house of a novel is a coming-of-age story, but The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is mainly a book about writing — which may appeal most to literati. It is filled with clever literary allusions and insider jokes, including a rejected short story title, "Just Another Bastard Out of Carolina," and quips about Iceland's prevalence of authors, which "puts even Brooklyn to shame." At its heart is the advice "Pinkerton and McCann" receive from their freshman fiction professor: "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant."
The strain of living up to this exhortation shows, resulting in a novel that's so emphatically slanted — or skewed — it's practically in italics. But there's plenty to relish in this noteworthy debut, especially on revisiting the opening pages once you've made it to the end. Typical of Jansma's cunning artistry is a lovely checkers metaphor that explains being kinged as "gaining the ability to reverse course. To go against the tide, as it were, back to where you've begun." It's a possibility that holds out hope for Jansma's narrator. The question is, can this liar — er, leopard — change his spots? And can Jansma extend his purview beyond writers?