The oft-repeated elevator pitch on Black Leopard Red Wolf, the buzzy new novel from Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James, is that it’s the African Game of Thrones. (“I said that as a joke,” James protested in an interview this week.) To a certain extent, the comparison holds. Black Leopard Red Wolf is a lush epic fantasy set in an enchanted and mythical Africa, filled with quests and magical beasts and vicious battles to the death. But it’s also a much weirder, twistier book than the Game of Thrones parallels would suggest.
Most notably, it is not driven by story. Black Leopard Red Wolf actively resists any attempts on the reader’s part to sink inside the world of the book and lose themselves. It is deliberately opaque, on the level of sentence as well as plot.
On the sentence level, James likes to withhold proper nouns until the last possible moment and then waits to reveal them just a little bit longer than you’d think he should be able to get away with. That means his sentences are generally carried by verbs, and you don’t know who is doing what or why for long stretches at a time: You just get an impression of anonymous limbs tangled together in sex or battle for some reason that is not immediately clear.
On the plot level, the quest for a missing boy that ostensibly powers the action of the book is so confusing, and has so little to do with the main character’s motivations, that the rest of the characters are constantly complaining about it. “This child carries no stakes for you,” one says toward the end of the novel to Tracker, our protagonist, and she’s correct. So is the poor sad giant who has the premise of the quest he is on explained to him multiple times and can only conclude, “Confusing, this is.”
Like the giant, I only vaguely understand the plot of Black Leopard Red Wolf, but in brief: There is a boy (never named) who has gone missing, and a mysterious figure has hired multiple people to try to bring the boy back because something something the fate of the kingdom something. The hired group comprises an entertainingly varied cast of questers — a giant, a shape-shifting leopard, a witch, a buffalo, a water goddess who melts into puddles periodically — and one of the questers is Tracker, a man whom everyone greets by saying, “It is said you have a nose.”
Tracker’s nose can lead him to any missing person, and so he makes his living as a kind of magical Philip Marlowe, tracking down cheating spouses for petty cash. He is also the Red Wolf of the title: He loses an eye about a hundred pages in, and replaces it with a wolf’s eye. It helps him see in the dark.
Tracker’s nose and eye help him go after the boy, but James has structured the quest to deliberately thwart any attempts his readers might make to care about it. For one thing, Tracker himself has absolutely no reason to care about the boy and often remarks as much. For another thing, Tracker tells us in the first line of the novel that “the child is dead. There is nothing left to know.”
In other words, we know that the quest will be futile and the child will die. We also know that the protagonist is not particularly interested in the quest. It is nearly impossible for a reader to hook into the narrative. Yet Black Leopard Red Wolf spends hundreds and hundreds of pages tracking its many twists and permutations.
The opacity here is clearly a deliberate choice on James’s part. He is not interested in easy reads or straightforward stories. “The African folktale is not your refuge from skepticism,” he told the New Yorker earlier this year. “It is not here to make things easy for you, to give you faith so you don’t have to think.”
And James plans to keep things challenging through the rest of the Dark Star trilogy, of which Black Leopard is only the first volume. He’s modeling it on Showtime’s Rashomon-like series The Affair, he says, so that each volume will present the same events to the reader through a different point of view. “The series is three different versions of the same story, and I’m not going to tell people which they should believe,” James says.
The many threads of Black Leopard Red Wolf come together in an ending that’s genuinely moving
But while I may respect James’s choice as a critic, as a reader, I found much of Black Leopard to be a slog. It’s difficult to push through page after page of beautiful sentences — and James’s sentences really are stunning — that are organized specifically to avoid telling you who is doing what or why and why you should care. Sure, truth is unstable, stories don’t need resolution, the gods are dead, etc. etc., but would it kill this book to give me a single concrete arc to hang onto? It’s 620 pages long! Cut a girl a break!
That’s why what’s most compelling to me about Black Leopard Red Wolf is the moments in which James delves into what’s really motivating Tracker, which is his family trauma. Tracker’s story begins with an abusive father he disowns and a mother he rapidly comes to despise, and he spends the rest of the novel fleeing from their legacy.
In the first section of the novel, he creates a found family out of a group of children with disabilities who have been abandoned by their own parents and are being brought up by a witch; when he ultimately loses those children, he is so horrified by what he experiences as his betrayal of them that he tries to flee from his legacy the same way he fled his parents. To the extent that Tracker cares about the missing boy, then, it is because he cares about all children who are pulled away from their families, because he sees himself as both betrayed child and betraying adult.
It’s in the last section of the novel that the scars of Tracker’s childhood come together with the story of the missing boy in a shocking and heartbreaking melding of strands — and that’s when Black Leopard Red Wolf became unputdownable for me.
But there were so so many pages to get through before that.