The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma
My 2018 gift book is Kristopher Jansma’s The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. From the outset I was dazzled and compelled to reread sentences— the way I read Fitzgerald— and with each finely spun phrase Jansma nudged me to see the world differently.
I sat there listening to the clocks’ little ticking noises. Inside each were little gears like the ones inside my watch, struggling and turning. I listened to the seconds escaping. And I knew then that each second was just escaping to a different clock, somewhere even farther away, and that the seconds just went on and on escaping like that forever.
The narrator is only eight when he makes this observation about the fragile state of life and his existence. His childhood is unsteady at best. He grows up without a father and often left to his own devices in an airport terminal because his mom is a stewardess. His desperate need to prove himself is always palpable.
She looked at everything like it was a sad, small version of something better she’d seen somewhere else. It was how she looked at me.
This inner demon motivates him to excel, take risks and dream big. The narrator’s desires are so colorfully charged I was continually swept into his frenzy, certain his success was eminent. But his demon was never far away, and in the aftermath of each disappointment I kept wondering if the narrator would ever break free of self-doubt.
Evelyn Lynn Madison Demont. Even four Anglo-Saxon names cannot contain her. She should be a “the Third” or a “Countess di” something-or-other. My heart has been lost in the frozen tundras of hers ever since Julian first introduced us in our college days, seven years ago. Now the accidental thought of her sends sparks through me like I am one of Henry Adams’s dynamos. Everything I write is for her; none of it is ever good enough.
The biggest self-doubt of all is tangled within the narrator’s view of himself as a writer. Jansma uses each chapter of the narrator’s life to illuminate the unabashed truth about what it means for a person to choose a writing life, and the inevitable failure embedded in the process to reach publication.
Somewhere once, I read that the only mind a writer can’t see into is the mind of a better writer. When I watched Julian watching the world, I was always reminded of this.
As June came to a close, I heard from the first round of literary agents, who collectively declared my novella “forced” “unrealistic” and filled with “less-than-charming characters.”
He is the most vulnerable, innocent and charming unreliable narrator I’ve come across. Even at his most despicable he makes me want to dream bigger, lie better and go all out to be the person I’ve always coveted but never imagined I could be. And wow, isn’t that what writing is all about?
“Why are you like this?” she asks.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I say.
“I’d believe anything you told me,” she says. There are suddenly tears in her eyes, and I can’t look at them. But she turns away, thinking she’s robbed me of the satisfaction of seeing them.
“Well that’s just the problem,” I snap. “You would believe anything. And I’m a lair. That’s just what I am. I lie like I’m breathing. I lie to everyone, myself most of all. But with you it’s just too easy. I can’t stop myself, because you’ll believe anything.”
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is written like a series of short stories. I wasn’t sure how well I would like this structure, but after being mesmerized by Jansma’s Why We Came To The City, I knew I needed to give it a whirl. Reading Leopards gave me a literary high. Whenever I think about it I get buzzed. It’s a dare to adventure, to put yourself someplace you’ve never been. Jansma’s storytelling stimulates creativity because he makes a writer’s desperate desire for their words and stories to shine and matter feel tangible. Of course, it’s a desire wrapped in fear, but the only way to break through is to put one word in front of another just like the Narrator without caring about the results.
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards— Read, savor, and dare yourself to write on.