February 21, 2019

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Marlon James: By the Book

Marlon James: By the Book
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Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?

Huckleberry Finn, because after all the years he is still the fictional character who charmed me the most. Sula, not because I like her — in fact, she would have been to me what she was to everyone, best friend and mortal enemy at once — but her simple statement, “Show? To who?” (in response to ex-friend Nel asking what she had to show for her life) changed everything for me. The idea that my life’s purpose was not to gain other people’s approval never occurred to me until I read that book. After reading that novel I literally rose and walked differently.

My favorite villain remains Bill Sikes from “Oliver Twist.” He unnerves me so much that I usually try to write about him with as few words as possible, because I’m usually overcome with chills before I even finish the sentence. I never cared much for antiheroes, who always seem like whiny men who thought they had problems but really didn’t. My American literature professor thought Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” was an antihero. I saw a self-duped, abusive, rapist loser who was in his own way as deluded as Blanche. I think I told him that he only thought Kowalski was an antihero because he wanted to get with Marlon Brando, who was the prettiest thing in that film and absolutely knew it.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

This feels like Part 2 of my answer to the genre question. As I said, I read whatever I could get my hands on. The beauty there is that I never learned genre snobbery. I still remember when I was 13 and read Dickens’s “Great Expectations,” Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” James Clavell’s “Tai-Pan,” Jackie Collins’s “Hollywood Wives,” Gloria Naylor’s “The Women of Brewster Place,” John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl,” Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” V. S. Naipaul’s “Miguel Street” and Michael Anthony’s “The Year in San Fernando” within the space of six months. And that’s not counting X-Men, New Mutants, Spiderman, Teen Titans and Batman comics, which I read every month. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of the difference between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” writing — after all, I did have literature teachers. I just didn’t care. That also meant comics were the books I read with any regularity. I’m not really a fan of authors so much as books; in fact, reading authors instead of books might be why we are much more likely to have read a bad book from a famous author than a great book from someone less known (or less consistent). At this point I would guess more people have read “Soldiers’ Pay” than “Appointment in Samarra.”

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Colette, because then the party would be in bed. Gabriel García Márquez, because his life stories would be crazier than his fiction. And Henry Fielding, because whoever wrote “Tom Jones” must be tons of fun, right? As long as nobody is talking about their work.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I tried “Wuthering Heights” for the third time last summer because so many people I deeply admire swear by it. For one friend it was the defining literary moment that changed their lives. I still think it’s an aimlessly overwrought, overwritten, unpleasant mess. Besides, everybody knows “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” is the finest Brontë novel. “Jane Eyre” is second. “Villette” is third. “Agnes Grey” is fourth.

Whom would you want to write your life story?

A hologram of Boswell.



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