The Literary Acoustics of Marlon James

Hearing Loss, the Noisy Novel, and A Brief History of Seven Killings

By Ed Garland

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In 1934, Henry Roth published Call It Sleep. Critics liked it, but hardly anyone bought it. When it was re-released in the sixties, by which time Roth was a bemused poultry farmer who hadn’t written a book for thirty years, it attracted huge acclaim and sales. It describes the experiences of a young boy whose sensitivity to sound reflects the fear and wonder he feels in the noisy city, New York, to which his family has emigrated: ‘It wasn’t the sun that swamped one as one left the doorway, it was sound – an avalanche of sound.’ The richness of its soundscape is what sets it apart from similar accounts of Jewish childhoods. In the afterword to its paperback re-release, Walter Allen declared it ‘the noisiest novel ever written.’ This might still be true today, but Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, a novel saturated with sound and explicitly concerned with hearing and listening, comes very close to taking the title.

I began to notice sound in fiction after I was diagnosed with noise-induced hearing loss. It was the diagnosis I’d been expecting, after a couple of decades spent guzzling loud music every day while ignoring all the health warnings, with occasional interludes spent hitting drum-kits as hard as I could for various short-lived bands.

I’d been a careless consumer of sound. I knew something was wrong: I had a constant ringing in my ears, couldn’t make out what certain people said, and was increasingly irritable in situations that involved leaving the house and having to communicate. But I still went on listening to music as loudly as I could. When this mixture of mis-hearing, irritation and conversational slowness was given a proper name by an audiologist, and the same proper name by the second audiologist I went to for confirmation, I finally brought a healthy quietness into my listening routine, accepted my tinnitus as a constant presence rather than something to be covered up, and began to pay more attention to sound wherever it appeared.

I noticed that sometimes, the fiction I was reading made hardly any noise. Novels like Anita Brookner’s Falling Slowly made almost no demands on the mind’s ear. This quietness could be pleasurable, and it suited Brookner’s characters, as they softly and meekly screwed up their lives and threw them in the bin. In another of Brookner’s novels, Latecomers, she says of a young boy that ‘he was an unacknowledged source of dissatisfaction,’ whose presence one of the other characters experiences as ‘a pervasive lowering of her spirits, never high at the best of times.’ This phrase stuck out from the book’s hushed pages, and seemed to sum up my thoughts about fiction and sound. I hadn’t properly acknowledged the acoustic dissatisfaction that lowered my spirits until the audiologists gave me a name for it. And maybe I hadn’t realised that the reason some novels irritated me was because their treatment of sound was fishy. Their acoustics were careless.

In Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment (translated by Ann Goldstein), the narrator says that, during her teens, she felt she was ‘inside a clamorous life and that everything might come apart because of a too piercing sentence.’ In her adult life, things remain noisy, and the major components of the noise are the voices of humans and animals. The sounds of objects are distorted or omitted. When the narrator drops a bottle of wine, it smashes on the floor, but she doesn’t mention the sound it must have made. Immediately afterwards, she knocks over a bowl of sugar, and the sound of it ‘raining first on the marble kitchen countertop, then on the wine-stained floor exploded in [her] ears.’ I’m not saying this unusual treatment of sound was a mistake. Maybe by having the narrator respond to a quiet noise as if it were loud, and not register at all a sound that would have been explosive, Ferrante intensifies her narrator’s disorientation. But it niggled me. Later on in the story, the narrator throws a phone against a wall. It breaks into two pieces and falls to the floor. But the only noise made by this sequence of impacts is ‘a sharp crack.’ I was nitpicking, yes, but the nits had become quite annoying.

To find a new way of appreciating sound without bothering my ears, I began to assemble the list of what might be called Sonic Fiction, the Literature of the Ear, or the Noisy Novel. Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings is by far the best recent example of this sub-genre, which includes Richard Wright’s Native Son, Vasily Grossman’s Everything Flows, and Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. All of these books show their characters navigating through largely hostile soundscapes, and use sonic events to alter their characters’ emotions. As Greg Goodale says of Native Son, ‘sonic motifs’ illustrate the ‘affective experience’ of the protagonists. In Native Son, Bigger Thomas is tormented by alarm clocks and the noises of industry that ‘confine [him] to a preindustrial state.’ In Everything Flows, the noises made by trains echo in the characters’ minds as they get older. A Brief History of Seven Killings has its fair share of similar torments, but it also uses references to the act of listening to intensify its atmosphere of stress, dread, and grief. Its soundtrack adds layers of meaning to its story, if you listen to it closely enough.

At the start of A Brief History of Seven Killings, a dead man says to us: ‘Listen.’ He explains that the dead ‘never stop talking,’ and ‘sometimes the living hear.’ But it’s difficult for the decomposing chatterboxes to make themselves heard. They ‘moan and keen loud but it comes through the window like a whistle or a whisper under the bed.’ It’s not surprising that these whistles and whispers go unheard, because the book’s living characters inhabit a soundscape of gunshots, screams, hisses, screeches, slaps, slams, threats, and distorted laughs. We read the internal monologues of its characters as they move through this frighteningly audible world, at the centre of which is a mystical noise-maker known as The Singer.

We know The Singer is Bob Marley, but he’s only once referred to by that name. The rest of the time, every character refers to him as ‘The Singer’ and in this way, he is defined as a source of sound. His peculiar acoustic power is his most important characteristic. Early on, we hear the character Bam-Bam, a teenaged boy coerced into the gang life of 70s Kingston, mentally address The Singer, suggesting he was first given a chance to record a song because the man in the recording studio could ‘hear the hunger in your voice before he even hear you sing.’ And as his popularity increases, The Singer employs armed guards to protect his house. They, too, are given a name that defines them in sonic terms: The Echo Squad.

The events of the book’s first part focus on the gang members’ failure to shoot The Singer dead. Before The Singer’s shooting, Bam-Bam says ‘when music hit you can’t hit it back.’ This is more true than he realises: The Singer remains strangely invulnerable to the bullets sprayed into his house by the group of men and boys, including Bam-Bam, who hope to kill him. He does get hit, and is taken to hospital, but he’s onstage the very next night. Bam-Bam, however, is hunted down and buried alive. The last thing he hears is a shovelful of dirt landing somewhere above him as he suffocates: ‘can’t feel new dirt dump on me only hear it so dark and wet and heavy.’

“… the audiologist might ask you how you feel about spending three grand on a set of hearing aids, and you might tell them you intend to explore other options, such as getting more of your sonic satisfaction from words.”

Bam-Bam’s name encodes multiple layers of sonic significance. It’s most obviously a doubling or echo of a word that sounds like a gunshot. But it’s also the name of a piece of music. We know this because he explains that he doesn’t listen to The Singer’s songs, preferring ‘other song that ride the Stalag rhythm, song from people who can’t pay for no guitar and don’t have a white man to give it to them’. There are many songs that use the Stalag rhythm, one of the most recognisable pieces of music ever to come out of Jamaica. ‘Rhythm’ here means the musical substance of a song – bassline, drums, hooks. The Stalag rhythm, originally produced by Winston Riley, is named after the film Stalag 17, which tells the story of a group of Americans in a German prisoner of war camp. A recent Billboard article estimated that Riley’s rhythm has been used as the basis for over 400 songs.

Maybe the best of these is the one by Sister Nancy called ‘Bam Bam.’ Still immensely popular today (those 26 million YouTube plays aren’t all mine. Some of them must be Jay-Z’s, who used the song on his 2017 album 4:44.), James’s use of it as a character name inevitably gives that character’s sections of the novel a bassline. Bam-Bam’s name, appearing at the top of every other page, functions as a reminder that the music he embodies is always playing. And as the Stalag rhythm combines beautiful sounds with painful ideas, so Bam-Bam’s cadence uses repeated vowel-notes to describe traumatic memories: ‘all we can do down here in the Eight Lanes is see and wait. And I see shit water run free down the street and I wait. And I see my mother take two men for twenty dollars each and one more who pay twenty-five to stay in instead of pull out and I wait.’

When you get the results of your hearing tests, you’re given a graph with two lines on it, one for each ear. The lines are horizontal towards the left, where the bass frequencies are. They take a sharp plunge towards the right, where the mid-range is, before curving back up slightly, but only slightly, where the really high frequencies are. This mid-range dip indicates too much time spent listening to music too loudly. Then, with this unsurprising but still startling graph in your hands, the audiologist might ask you how you feel about spending three grand on a set of hearing aids, and you might tell them you intend to explore other options, such as getting more of your sonic satisfaction from words.

They can’t yet tell you which songs did the most damage. But I know a big part of the reason my graph takes such a plunge on the right-hand side is from listening to music with Jamaican origins, Jamaican sounds, and Jamaican techniques. Reggae, Dub, Dub’s influence on Jungle and Drum ‘n Bass, Kingston’s influence on electronic music the world over. Bam-Bam seemed to represent my old carefree and violent listening habits, and his burial came as a relief.

For one of the narrators, Kim Clarke (though her name changes throughout the novel), so much misery is happening in Jamaica that she goes to desperate lengths to escape it. She says she wants to go ‘somewhere that I’ll never hear wha’appen ever again.’ She’s forced into sex with the Embassy official who’ll give her the papers she needs to get to America. The horror of this is registered in the soundtrack: she hears ‘skin flapping and slapping,’ and people in the office outside his door ‘stopping to listen’ for the full seven minutes, during which ‘nobody outside typed a single letter.’ Afterwards, at the house she shares with her American boyfriend, a man with ‘one of those one punch American names [that] sound like apple pie and easy money,’ she stands in the shower and hears ‘the drain hack a cough.’ Before her man gets home, she imagines soothing her guilt and trying to foster a genuine tenderness towards him when she says ‘I shall love all the sounds he makes when he sleeps. The heehaw, the whistle when one of his nostrils blocks. The half of a sentence. The mumble. The flap flap flap flap snore. The groan. The American fart. […] I know all his sounds because I never sleep.’ But when he gets home, she doesn’t hear him come in. He splits up with her while she’s making dinner.

“I noticed that sometimes, the fiction I was reading made hardly any noise… And maybe I hadn’t realised that the reason some novels irritated me was because their treatment of sound was fishy. Their acoustics were careless.”

So she burns the house down. And she justifies this to herself in terms of the sonic opportunity it presents. She makes it clear that she’s destroying a particular soundscape, to give herself the chance to disappear into another: ‘Burn a way through the white man’s knocking and shouting and screaming and rapping and ramming down the door that won’t budge, and the cackling pillows and the hissing silk sheets and the laughing polyester curtains, watch the flame shoot up like under a skirt and expose the screaming window.’

She makes it to New York, where the second part of the book takes place. The Singer dies of cancer, and the last thing he hears through his hospital window is Stevie Wonder’s ‘Master Blaster’ playing on the radio. This song’s heavy reggae influence registers the effect of Jamaican culture on American music, prefiguring the book’s shift in focus to the effect of Kingston’s gangsters on New York’s crack problem. The soundscape stays grim, but takes on new elements: James borrows a technique from cinematic sound design when he twice uses moments of pure silence to increase tension. Most of the narrators either know or suspect they’re going to be killed, and they start to listen to their speech more attentively, hoping not to betray themselves. Hearing damage is hinted at, too, when characters say ‘me need microphone in this place or you deaf?’ and ‘you hear any fucking thing I just say?’ these kinds of questions draw attention to the book’s concern with the way knowledge comes in through the ears. The clueless characters are the ones who are bad at listening: the CIA agent, whose job it is to overhear things in order to help American combat the increasing Communist influence on Jamaica, is frequently shown failing to discover some necessary information. He twice fails to realise that he’s started to speak his thoughts out loud. Another example is the American music journalist who writes a long report on the gangs connected to The Singer’s shooting. One of these gangs takes a natural interest in his writing, and breaks into his house. When they force him at gunpoint to read the report aloud, ‘the entire kitchen groan[s]’ because ‘nothing make a white man sound more white than when he try to sound like a black girl.’

I haven’t found another contemporary novel that has such a deep concern with sound. The violence in A Brief History of Seven Killings seems to be its most-discussed element, but it is not what makes the novel extraordinary. What makes it extraordinary is the variety and frequency of the ways it gets the reader to consider how they listen, what they hear, the meanings present within a soundscape and the meanings that are lost when things that matter remain unheard.

After his shooting, The Singer leaves hospital to play a show in a public park. Bam-Bam narrates, and we listen in to his internal monologue as he tells himself ‘no sound dipping through the speaker, only the deep end of the riddim.’ Then he once again addresses The Singer in his mind: ‘You hold the mic up in the air like a torch and cover your eyes again […]. They think you dancing but you signifying.’ Here we see The Singer wordlessly ask his audience to do the same thing the dead man asked us to do on page one, the same thing many of the characters do to themselves and ask of each other. Elsewhere, we find it echoed in language, when the gangster Papa-Lo muses about the benefits of reading books in prison: ‘Nobody – and I mean nobody – can learn nothing if them not ready to listen.’

REFERENCES:

Armah, A. K. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Edinburgh: Heinemann, 1988

Brookner, A. Falling Slowly, London: Penguin, 1998

Brookner, A. Latecomers, London: Penguin, 2010

Ferrante, E. The Days of Abandonment (trans Ann Goldstein), New York: Europa Editions, 2005

Goodale, G. Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Digital Age, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011

Grossman, V. Everything Flows, R. Chandler, E. Chandler, A. Aslanyan (trans) London: Vintage, 2011

James, M. A Brief History of Seven Killings, London: Oneworld, 2016

Meschino, P. ‘Winston Riley, Veteran Jamaican Producer and Creator of Stalag Riddim, Shot in Kingston’, BillboardBiz, November 2, 2011. Accessed online 25 August, 2017:
http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/1162170/winston-riley-veteran-jamaican-producer-and-creator-of-stalag-riddim-shot

Roth, H. Call It Sleep, London: Michael Joseph, 1963

Wright, R. Native Son, London: Vintage, 2000

Photo: bob marley by fallenstarnbabylon

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