Among the novels written in the 21st century that I have read, my favorite is Francis Spufford’s Cahokia Jazz. (I’m going to call the author “Francis” because he is a dear friend – I’ll say more about this later – so calling him by his surname rings false to me.) But the concept of “favorite” is not an easy one to explain. I do not mean to say that I believe Cahokia Jazz to be the best even of Francis’s novels. I could, if lightly pressed, make a case for the superiority of Light Perpetual, which is a glorious and deeply moving book. But I am not pressed, and can say what I want, and what I want to say is this: I adore Cahokia Jazz, and I hope you will read it and adore it too. It’s available in the U.K. right now and will appear here in the U.S.A. early next year.
Why do I delight in this story so much? Well, for one thing, it participates in a genre that I am especially fond of, the Alternate History Novel. I first fell in love with that kind of story when I was around fifteen and read Keith Roberts’s Pavane, a book I’ve never quite gotten over. Soon afterwards I read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and my attachment to the genre was fixed forever. What do I love so much about this kind of story? I suppose it’s the unannounced and waiting-to-be-noticed alternation between the known and the unknown, between world-as-it-is and world-as-might-have-been. You’re reading along, well-placed in a familiar history, and then something happens that you know did not happen. Or: you begin reading a story that seems to be set altogether otherwhere, and then something is mentioned that connects to the familiar, the established. I can’t explain it, but I love the frisson that happens when two histories brush against each other. I love not quite knowing how to understand the relation between those two histories, the long puzzle of figuring out the Same and the Different.
When I first read Cahokia Jazz I had an experience that you, dear reader, will not have. I’ll take an example from the first page of the book:
Barrow stepped carefully back towards the little hutch holding the door to the stairs. There was already a mess underfoot. As he expected, the uniform who’d called them in, from the phone down in the lobby, was waiting only a few steps down, on the narrow flight winding round the top of the elevator shaft. Just behind him was the night cleaner who’d found the door unlocked originally. She’d gone out onto the roof, and then run screaming onto Creekside to flag down the patrolman. Neither of them looked what you’d call avid. The cleaner, a heavyset taklousa in her forties, had her mouth clamped shut to hold in shock or nausea. The patroller, only twenty or so, was doing the classic takouma stone face – the set pose for male strength when something bad happened. He’d been out to the skylight too. Not rubberneckers, not spectators. Yet there they still were, keeping close; commanded somehow by the presence of death, compelled to wait attendance where it had visited. It took death repeated over and over, in Barrow’s experience, death repeated in quantities too great for meaning, to wear that solemnity away. It took a war. Soldiers could learn to just walk on by in the presence of death, not many other people.
Even from this you’ll probably get that this is a murder scene, that the story is (at least in part) a police procedural. (And that our protagonist is a former soldier.) But you don’t know what a taklousa is, or a takouma.
Neither did I, when I began the story – but then, what I got was the naked and unadorned first chapter. The events of Cahokia Jazz take place over six days: the book begins on a Monday and ends on a Saturday. And Francis sent me the story one day at a time, with some weeks or months intervening between my experience of one day and the next. Because I was utterly absorbed in the story from the first page, I found this both exhilarating and anxiety-producing: like Dickens’s American readers in 1841, wondering whether Little Nell would survive the next installment, I waited desperately at the quay of my Gmail inbox, holding my breath in anticipation of the next Day of the story.
Nothing in what Francis sent me told me what a taklousa is, or a takouma, or for that matter a takata (mentioned for the first time on page 7); nor are we told what it means for someone to be addressed as tastanagi, or what a, or the, tamaha is. I had to figure all this out out as I went along, which I loved doing – and so, long-experienced in the publishing world as I am, I wrote to Francis to say Your editors will demand a glossary, you must refuse to provide or even allow a glossary. Thanks be to God, there’s no glossary in the book … but there is a brief explanatory note at the beginning, between the map and the first chapter, and while it’s handled with skill and grace I encourage you to skip over it if you can. It deprives you of a pleasure. (Editors – I suppose this must be their job – always think in terms of the less active and committed kind of reader, the one who needs some hand-holding. Sometimes reviewers of my books complain that I have made something too explicit, and I always want to say The editors made me do it, dummy.)
So: I’d love for all of you to read this book while knowing no more than I knew when I read it. But if you need, or just want, to know more, well, further info is coming after the break.
Still here? Okay, so: Alternate-history novels grow from What-Ifs. Here are the relevant ones for Cahokia Jazz:
What if the variety of smallpox that Europeans brought to the New World was a less deadly one than the one that devastated a continent? (There are less deadly ones.) What if as a result a large Native American population survived colonization? What if a common trade pidgin of the American colonial era – to be specific, the Mobilian trade jargon – became a full-fledged language, capable of serving as a binding agent for the many takouma – um, I mean, Native American – cultures of the American South and Southwest? And what if as a result the old abandoned city of Cahokia was rebuilt into a great modern city, populated by several varying ethnicities, dominating its region so that you get moments like this:
They left him in the village of St. Louis, which was a church, a gas station and a general store, clustered under dripping oak trees. There was a sign, put up by the state historical society, saying the place had been founded by a French settler in 16-something. It didn’t seem to have grown much since.
I love stuff like that.
Francis has commented on some of his key concerns — and some of his key challenges in writing this story — over at Goodreads:
- The Matter of America
- Imaginary Architecture for Imaginary Cities
- On Having a Map — and yes, the maps in Cahokia Jazz really are wonderful.
People who read fantasies or alternate histories talk a lot – too much, perhaps – about “world-building,” but the world-building is impeccable here, by which I mean appropriately detailed: enough to enable a fully imagined environment, but not so busy and cumbersome to be a distraction. (To all those writers of fantasy who think that if they are as meticulous as Tolkien was their book will be as powerful as The Lord of the Rings, I say: There is only one Tolkien, and there will never be another.)
One tiny example, drawing on one of the several delightful cameos in the book. At one point, late in the story, our hero is at Cahokia’s railway station and happens to see a family, “pale, shabby-grand, and relocating with their life’s possessions” – including, curiously enough, butterfly nets: “white Russians on their way to Kodiak, by the look of it.” One of them, “a lanky twenty-something in flannels and tennis shoes,” is called by his family Vovka, and he briefly assists our hero. Then off they go, leaving our story as abruptly as they had arrived in it. Assuming that they made their way to Kodiak – or, more formally, as our map tells us, NOVAYA SIBIRSKAYA TERRITORII – it is unlikely that their world ever knew Lolita or Pale Fire. But what might they, in their timeline inaccessible to us, possess instead? This we do not know. About this we are free to imagine.
I’ll have more to say later, more especially about the story as a story, which I found both enthralling and touching. But first I need to do some Thomas Mann while his story of Joseph is fresh in my mind. For now, I just wanted to make sure all y’all know about this wonderful book.