Frequent visitors to this review column know my tastes in fiction are rather eclectic, ranging from the plot-driven to the densest literary prose. However, my preference first and foremost is to read the same types of book I write: what I've termed the "existential novel"-- that is, books that map the human psyche either teaching us about ourselves outright or raising questions that leave us considering possibilities long after the last page. Scott Kelly's Jimwamba is such a novel. It takes the primary existential question of identity and twists it over and back on itself, forcing new interpretations of what it means to be human.
Jimwamba tells the story of Jack and his eight friends who, in high school, come up with a game from which the title comes. The game is at once childishly simple and yet as complex as understanding Nietzsche or Kant. When one of the members tags another member and says the word, "Jimwamba," the tagged person must change his entire life in the next twenty minutes. These changes involve everything from giving up a promising future when a valedictorian tells his audience he cheated on every test he ever took to sacrificing true love in order to complete the transformation. In doing so, these nine learn lessons not only about themselves, but human beings as a whole:
" Quitting my life and starting anew left me feeling confused and
lonely only for a few days. People get caught up in the belief that
what they live is permanent; that if everything changed they wouldn't
wake up the next day. That's far from the truth - unless you bite the big
one, you're going to wake up tomorrow. You'll still be alive.'
The story itself is compelling, watching Jack and the others struggle to become new people over and over, giving up their steady, comfortable routines to seek a sort enlightenment in the transformation. As they do, they force the reader to consider the question: if you had change your life in twenty minutes, how would you do it, and what would it do to you? It's a question similar to those asked in many of the great works of literature. Sartre, for example, in Nausea, asks how your life would change if you suddenly became hyperaware of your own mortality and that only non-existence follows. Or, consider Javert in Les Miserables and wonder: if everything you believed about yourself and your world were suddenly proven to be a lie, could you survive such knowledge? Jimwamba leads the reader down a similar path, forcing contemplation while at the same time maintaining a frenzied pace that keeps the story as interesting as the philosophy underneath. The reader easily becomes captivated as the characters find freedom of a sort but also lean further and further toward madness:
" People who live normal lives are wasting space. If reincarnation is true,
and people are the most enlightened form of energy, then the universe is a sad
place. We're handed this chance and most of us do the least amount with it
possible, because we're scared. We're sniveling, whining puppies that would
rather play it safe and conventional than see what's out there.
Quit Jimwamba? Be just like you? Fuck that. The Nine, we're higher
life forms. Is this a sign of my narcissism? Asking me to quit would be the same as
asking a guitarist to put away his instrument, or a skydiver to never jump again.
Jimwamba was how I defined myself, and it was the only definition available that
limited me in no way. Ever notice how you meet the same people over and over again, just with slightly different faces? And they fill the same spots in your life that the previous
placeholder did? Well, that's because you never change. Your life is a little circle.
. . .
You have a pretty solid vision of what you will be, and a damn good idea
of what you won't be. You're not going anywhere, is what I'm trying to say. You're not going
anywhere because you're running in circles. You'll react the same way to the
same things over and over because you're the same person. It shifts the odds in
a certain way and the same basic things will happen over and over.
. . .
Jimwamba lets us hop from circle to circle, from lifetime to lifetime."
Of course, at some point the reader asks, "Why do they keep playing?" But the author tests this as well and shows the results. It's similar, in fact, to Sartre's concept of people as "beings-for-others," which is to say, that we are defined in large part by how we perceive that others perceive us. One basic principle of this is that we can try to delete our for-others, perhaps go and hide out in a cave, but such an action in itself is still a reaction to the existence of the others and a defining act in itself and with its own consequences. Likewise when one of the Nine refuses to accept his tag in Kelly's novel, the refusal changes his life the same as if he'd thrown off all his clothes and run naked down the street, driving him over the edge at quite a pace.
All in all, Kelly has provided us with a complex and thought-provoking existential novel that asks questions and tests the answers to all possible extremes. At the same time, he never loses that narrative thread that makes a book worth reading for pleasure as well as whatever more it brings. I've read hundred of modern books by folks late in their years that don't come close to matching the craft and cleverness of this one. The fact this book was published with the author only twenty years old makes its insightfulness even more amazing.
Recommendation: I can't help but give this book my highest rating. It's rare to find any novel with such a perfect mix of wisdom and story arc. Pick it up and live a different life for a while.