The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Kristopher Jansma
Penguin Books. Paperback, 272 Pages
“These stories are all true, but only somewhere else.” Before we even sink our teeth into Kristopher Jansma’s debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, we know we are entering a world of uncertainties where our narrator is unlikely to be a reliable guide.
Deeply imagined and vibrant characters become the axis around which any numerous details — names, locations, insecurities — may revolve and change, but never become unfamiliar. Even Jansma’s title here gives us some understanding: despite the different lenses his ambitious young writer/narrator may employ, he is both doomed and blessed to tell his own life without changing. As for the friends occupying his triangle —perhaps they are Julian and Evelyn, both vain and impetuous. Perhaps they are other people entirely. Like the many clocks of the airport terminal that the narrator first saw as a boy, each telling of this story contained within the novel tells the time of somewhere else, from which we can imagine the time where we stand.
But it took perhaps too long to appreciate this style of storytelling, and for me, a while to warm up to it. I became so attached to the first iteration, the narrator’s first shadow of events, that I begrudged the narrator for pulling the curtain away from it later. I felt betrayed. Perhaps this also reflected a loss in momentum around the middle of the novel, when our narrator find himself without his faithful friends and trying on numerous identities to try to find himself again, without them. As retellings of his life began to bleed together more, I did eventually appreciate this flaw in our narrator, even as it was spelled out rather bluntly.
Unchangeable Spots’ biggest success was in its thematic exploration of what is real, what is false, and whether any of that really matters. Fact and fiction take a backseat to the narrator’s search for identity, which really motivates the spiraling structure and style of this novel. It should be considered a remarkable debut, though not without its own flaws. Jansma’s is a powerful and unique voice worth consideration.