Format: 304 pp., paperback: Size: 5.5″ x 8″; Publisher: New Directions; Unique Narrative Threads: 22; Year of Bob Marley’s birth: 1945; Year of Bob Marley’s death: 1981; Estimated Rastafarians in Jamaica, 2001: 30,000; Estimated Rastafarians in England and Wales, 2001: 5,000; Representative Sentence: We had found our own God; told our own story; fashioned our I&I language; trod to our own riddim without their consent; held our knotty dreads high; everything on our own terms, I-fiantly.
Central Question: Can you remix the historical novel and make it new again?
In Marcia Douglas’ The Marvellous Equations of the Dread, Bob Marley is dead. But he has been reincarnated as a “fall-down”—a homeless town drunk—and is sleeping at nights in a Kingston clock tower, yelling about the past and arguing with the ghosts of the likes of Marcus Garvey and Edward VII while lighting spiffs through bouts of general emotional dyspepsia. The only living person who recognizes Mr. Marley in his new form is Leenah, a woman he met years before in London. To exacerbate his dreadful scenario, whenever Marley leaves his perch in the historic clock, five years pass in Kingston. It is distressing, but what does five years mean to a dead man? The arrow of time only really matters to the living, so how do a life and the constituent parts of it line up when you look at them from the fixed endpoint of death? What does the history of a nation—stretching back to other, faraway nations on another continent—look like from this perspective?
The book is subtitled A Novel in Bass Riddim, and it suggests that to the dead and the angels around them, time and history arrange themselves a mix tape. And more than a novel, this novel is also overtly that mix tape. Douglas has designed this miraculous book to have a flow—a bass rhythm—but also, like a CD-R you’d burn for a friend, to demonstrate connections between notions you thought were disparate, and to get you interested in something you didn’t know by showing it next to something you already like. Poems and novels and mix tapes are fine places for the dead and living to commune and converse, plus: when it comes to making a mix, you can’t go wrong with Bob Marley.
Crafting a mash-up of the historical, fictional, fantastical, lyrical, and musical allows Douglas to let her imagination play on equal footing with history in a way few novels have—the ambition, and its execution, are staggering. The book establishes Bob Marley as the eternal president of the Jamaican people. Robert Coover’s splashy and magically real Richard Nixon invective The Public Burning is called to mind. But Coover’s novel has a much tighter, established set of metaphoric rules, despite its fictional looseness with poor, disgraced Nixon. George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo also functions as an afterlife/Our Town stage play, but too is bound by the constraints its author sets on its dead. Unlike Saunders and Coover, Marcia Douglas goes full expressionist with Marley and those aswirl around him, and she takes more psychedelic risks.
Diary entries—“Angel’s Ledgers”—sit next to hallucinatory but historically derived scenes of Haile Selassie’s palace life. Leenah’s grandfather Hector losing his life savings in the collapse of Marcus Garvey’s Black Star line would be considered a very well done passage in any novel, but here, next to Selassie, it gains new power. In a Sweeping Historical Novel (Dos Passos, for example) a reader can feel the author at work when the Historically Famous Person shows up. Oh yes, here comes Bob Marley, of course. Or, if the novel is about the Historically Famous Person, then it feels weird when all the made-up characters show up, like they’re extras in this more important stage event. But in this book, all the famous people are ghosts, reggae lyrics are intercut with omniscient third-person and primary source accounts, and there’s time travel. This is David Lynch or Kara Walker move, and it works: this strange, surreal stew feels more true to life than any presentation you’d deem “accurate.”
Douglas slams everything together so that the novel is loud but not discordant. Chapters are at most a few pages. Some voices repeat and others are one-offs. Patios punctuates diction, dotted with I&Is and fiahs. Early on, ghost Bob maligns his father, who then appears for a page, as an aside, to rebuke his son’s claims. The page is subtitled “Bob’s Faddah Has His Say.” The next page, after this? “Mama talks back,” where the rebuke is rebuked. Every cymbal crash and bass note is heard in high fidelity. Or: if her mix tape is a painting, every paint splatter and pointillist dot is rendered in fractal precision. Zoom in and you’ll see more of the whole.
Many of the more straightforward passages would not be out of place in our aforementioned Sweeping Historical Novel, for example those of Leenah flirting with Bob in her England apartment during the seventies. Both carry guilt over leaving Jamaica, but for far different reasons, and these conversations and remembrances play like fragments from a Caribbean Dos Passos, converging the everyday with the historical-and-of-grand-importance. Leenah is deaf and, one surmises, impervious to the King of Reggae’s charms, a feminine resilience and presence that makes up the mix tape’s rhythmic backbeats. Leenah is cooler than Bob, smarter than Bob, and will outlive Bob. And she knows, far better than Bob, the value of her legacy.
This is the novel’s true power, its bassline, and its secret trick: In Marvellous Equations, dead and living men flail and thwart and commit the aforementioned violence. They live without regard for their children or ancestors. They are con artists, like Garvey; disappointing, like Bob’s Father; again disappointing, like Bob; autocratic and disappointing, like Haile Selassie; and just plain disappointingly stupid, like Edward VII. The women endure, not in small part due to a preternatural rhythmic sense—everyone hearing the same mix tape means you’re tapped into heritage and legacy, and that long-view feminine patience is a very powerful thing. The novel opens in the 1494, on a woman who sees their future colonizers on the horizon. She knows that the score is: “…this island is stubborn and will not be moved. The woman has already seen that end from the beginning.”
They carry Jamaica’s burden. A memorable sequence in the middle of the book centers on a monologue by Leenah’s mother, Sistah Vaughn, in which she describes becoming transfixed as a young girl by a photo of an Ethiopian woman holding a large ostrich egg. We are given the photograph on the opposite page. The woman in the photo is calm and projects stillness. “I look at that egg and ponder my future,” says Vaughan, remembering. The next page, Leenah remembers her mother’s remembrance. “The woman dare not break the egg or else the children will have no vision, and where there is no vision, the people perish.” What is Leenah talking about? What is Sistah Vaughan talking about? We move in time: Sistah Vaughn is dying in childbirth, and Leenah is present. Her mother has left her a lock of her dread. She cannot find the hair. She is worried she has failed her mother. We move again: Leenah has endured. “Watch out,” says Sistah Vaughn at one point. “Is woman time this.” Leenah has a child of her own. She will endure
Story, rhythm, and music are the maintaining and resolute engines of Jamaica, not their martyred men. More women will die in the book and in Jamaica, tragically and unjustly, and Bob Marley’s inability to affect a world that continues to be unjust and misogynist after he is gone makes a case for Douglas’ main argument, which is that a country or a people are a collage, and that because martyrs are only martyrs once they’re dead, they’re not very useful. Or to quote a very good book title from a while back: the dead do not improve. You will not find many reviews, this one included, that are interested in breaking apart the narrative or ending or character developments, because this book doesn’t want to be a novel, as such. The dead and their stories and legends are useful only as they are shown, as on a mix tape, as disparate but connected. Their stories will provide salvation through the unifying power and time-travel of a mash up.