What happens when F. Scott Fitzgerald meets Wes Anderson? Welcome to Kristopher Jansma’s debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, a literary fun house that follows an unreliable narrator on his quest to write the next Great American Novel. The opening lines warn “I’ve lost every book I’ve ever written,” and what follows is a valiant, though at times tiresome and off-putting, attempt to show how he came to lose them, and find himself in the process.
After being raised by a struggling single mother in North Carolina, the unnamed protagonist winds up at a small liberal arts college, where he meets the eccentric, unstable Julian — his lifelong writing rival — and the beautiful, aloof actress Evelyn — the girl he loves, or thinks he loves, but can never have. The first half of the novel revolves around the trials and blunders of the three characters as they go through school and try to make it in New York in the early 2000s. This might sound like the same tired old trope (a twentysomething sets off to the big city to pursue dreams of being a writer and it’s tough), but Jansma pulls this off without falling into cliché. The narrator is round and surprising, and what makes him most interesting and entertaining isn’t his life as a writer, but as a person trying to figure his life out. Success can be a crapshoot. Life might feel terribly lonely in the rush of the metropolis. The strongest of friendships fall apart. The novel addresses these issues in a way that is at once entertaining and deeply thought-provoking, which is perhaps its greatest feat: As out-of-control and pathetic as Jansma’s characters are, we can see ourselves in them.
The second half of the novel, however, doesn’t live up to the first. It jumps forward a decade, bends genres, and we’re left with a sort of travel adventure book that feels radically different from what we just read. Jansma trades in the optimistic twentysomething writer for the downtrodden thirtysomething failed writer, and this time he falls into the trope. The narrator runs off to a slew of far-flung destinations (Sri Lanka, Dubai, Ghana, Iceland, Luxembroug), trying to escape himself, only to continue to bump into traces of what he left behind in New York. He’s haunted by his falling-out with Julian, who lives a J.D. Salinger-style life, publishing an international bestselling cult-classic and then vanishing. The question of disappearance is key for Jansma, who wonders to what extent we can disappear into the world of fiction to evade the struggles of being ourselves.
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is about a boy becoming a writer, but above all it is about a writer becoming a person. When does the artist stop making art out of his own life and start living it? Where does fiction end and reality begin? The novel strikes a chord on questions of authenticity, love, and ambition, and it reminds us that life is often out of our control, even if we’re writing it down.