The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards: A Novel

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"F. Scott Fitzgerald meets Wes Anderson" (The Village Voice) in this inventive and witty debut about a young man’s quest to become a writer and the misadventures in life and love that take him around the globe

From as early as he can remember, the hopelessly unreliable—yet hopelessly earnest—narrator of this ambitious debut novel has wanted to become a writer.

From the jazz clubs of Manhattan to the villages of Sri Lanka, Kristopher Jansma’s ...

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The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards: A Novel

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"F. Scott Fitzgerald meets Wes Anderson" (The Village Voice) in this inventive and witty debut about a young man’s quest to become a writer and the misadventures in life and love that take him around the globe

From as early as he can remember, the hopelessly unreliable—yet hopelessly earnest—narrator of this ambitious debut novel has wanted to become a writer.

From the jazz clubs of Manhattan to the villages of Sri Lanka, Kristopher Jansma’s irresistible narrator will be inspired and haunted by the success of his greatest friend and rival in writing, the eccentric and brilliantly talented Julian McGann, and endlessly enamored with Julian’s enchanting friend, Evelyn, the green-eyed girl who got away. After the trio has a disastrous falling out, desperate to tell the truth in his writing and to figure out who he really is, Jansma’s narrator finds himself caught in a never-ending web of lies.

As much a story about a young man and his friends trying to make their way in the world as a profoundly affecting exploration of the nature of truth and storytelling, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards will appeal to readers of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists and Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning A Visit from the Goon Squad with its elegantly constructed exploration of the stories we tell to find out who we really are.


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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Kristopher Jansma's first fiction is a novel about the knotted lives of three old college friends. Two are writers: The narrator and infinitely more successful Julian McGann. The third is Julian's friend Evelyn, a New York actress with whom the narrator has a romantic fling. The symbiotic friendship and rivalry between the authors becomes the mainspring of this engulfing exploration of competition and identity.

Publishers Weekly
Jansma’s arresting debut follows the real and imaginary tales of an unnamed narrator whose ambition skyrockets after meeting the wealthy and gifted writer Julian McGann in college. The young men become friends based on a fierce competition to outwrite each other. “Somewhere, once, I read that the only mind a writer can’t see into is the mind of a better writer. When I watched Julian watching the world, I was always reminded of this.” Along the way, the narrator falls desperately in love with Julian’s beguiling friend Evelyn, and in the run-up to her wedding begins sleeping with her. As Julian’s writing attracts the kind of fervor that happens rarely, the narrator plods along in the man’s overpowering shadow until his own behavior, and what it brings out of Julian, wrench the two friends apart. While keeping an eye on Julian from afar, the narrator struggles to develop himself as a separate individual from Julian, an effort that seems all but impossible as the two men would have been formless without the impact of each other. Jansma’s characters deftly explore the blurred lines between fact and fiction, discovering the shades of truth that lie in between. Agent: Chelsea Lindman, the Nicholas Ellison Agency. (Mar. 25)
Library Journal
The turbulent relationship among three college friends is the raw material of this captivating first novel. While attending a small Massachusetts college, the North Carolina-born narrator, an aspiring writer, meets the talented but troubled Julian, also a writer, and they quickly become friends as well as artistic competitors. Julian introduces him to the mercurial Evelyn, a beautiful, young New York actress, and the two become lovers. After college, all paths lead to New York City; later, there's an eventful trip to the Grand Canyon for Evelyn's wedding and a decade's parting. The unnamed narrator then embarks on travels through Asia, Africa, and finally to an Icelandic writers' colony where he reunites with Julian. VERDICT Jansma explores how events are shaped into a work of fiction while also showing how we weave the reality of our lives into our own personal narratives. Ultimately, he's concerned with discovering the truth of the self that lies both within and beneath that narrative. A smart, searching debut about art and identity. [See Prepub Alert, 9/24/12.]—Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA
Kirkus Reviews
A self-referential first novel about truth, plagiarism, identity and writer's block. He's 8 years old, with only the kindly concession holders in the airport terminal to look after him; his mother, a flight attendant, has left him in their charge. (His father was a one-night stand during a layover.) What kind of a woman would treat her son like that? We'll never know; she never appears. Jansma is not interested in character-building, let alone plot. What's more consequential is that the kid writes his first story in the terminal: It's about a boy detective hiding in a trash can. Then (irony!) a real-world policeman sweeps it into the trash. Omens like these provide the novel's steppingstones. Eight years later, the nameless narrator has an after-school job in a North Carolina art museum; keep in mind the 1863 portrait in gold of a nude woman. Next, the Nameless One is at a college in the Berkshires, where he becomes friends with Julian, another aspiring writer who's gay, and the beautiful actress Evelyn. Later, Julian will publish a wildly successful novel; all the wretchedly unproductive Nameless can get published is a short story in an obscure journal. It's a mashup, Julian as Anton Chekhov, and there's a story-within-the-story about an 1863 gilder. Jansma is enamored of these echo-chamber effects; years later, the American gilder has become a Tamil on a DVD. The characters remain without substance. Evelyn may be the love of the narrator's life, or she may be a fantasy, as much a fantasy as her eventual husband, who morphs from a Hindu geologist into a prince of Luxembourg. The narrator assumes a buddy's identity, does some plagiarizing on the Internet and keeps moving, from Dubai to Sri Lanka to Ghana to Iceland to Luxembourg. Jansma has a ways to go before he can master postmodern technique.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143125020
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 2/25/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 235,548
  • Product dimensions: 8.30 (w) x 5.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Kristopher Jansma is a lecturer at Manhattanville College and SUNY Purchase and writes a monthly column for Electric Literature’s blog The Outlet. He was selected as a finalist for BOMB Magazine’s 2011 fiction contest, and his work has appeared in the Blue Mesa Review. He lives with his wife in New York City.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Kristopher Jansma, author of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

The novel jumps around the world quite a bit, touching down in places like Sri Lanka, Ghana, Iceland, and Luxembourg. How did such disparate geographical locations become a part of your story?

Particularly in the second half of the novel, the narrator travels farther and farther from New York City, where he has become miserable. He wants to get away from himself, like a spy trying to shake a tail - only he's a double-agent, unknowingly tailing himself. As I sent him off to each of the places you mention, I had a difficult time of it, because I couldn't afford to just hop on a plane and fly out there. So I did a lot of research, which I truly loved doing . I t made these places come alive in my imagination. And I spoke to friends and family members who had been to these places, until they felt as alive on the page as they were in the books I'd read. I eventually did get to go to some of these places: the Grand Canyon, Ghana, and Luxembourg, but in all three cases I only went after I finished writing those chapters. So I checked my facts and was pleasantly surprised to find I'd gotten very close on my own.

Throughout the book, we are waiting for the 'true' name of the narrator (and protagonist) to be revealed—which makes him even more thrilling to follow. As a writer, are you drawn to elusive and unreliable narrators?

Yes, from the minute I first picked up The Catcher in the Rye in my sophomore English class in high school . There is something thrilling about a narrator who pours his or her heart out to you on every page, confessing crimes and sins and weaknesses and pride, but who never confides that most basic and most intimate piece of information - a name. It creates this suspicion in my mind and it turns on that little detective center in my brain, so suddenly I'm asking questions instead of kicking back and going along for the ride.

On one level, the novel is different iterations of a single story: a struggling writer getssucked into dramatic episodes by his closest friend and literary rival, only to fall in love with an upper-class Broadway actress who runs off to pursue other men. Did the book start as one story, then evolve into its current, cyclical form? Or did you envision it as a novel of interconnected stories from the start?

In the beginning I thought it might turn out to be more like a collection of linked stories, each clearly written by this same unnamed narrator, and clearly about his two friends, who he'd disguise in each story in different ways. But for a million reasons, that particular bucket just wouldn't hold water. So then I banged my head against a number of desks and doorways and finally a good friend helped me come across the final structure, a novel told in two parts, which gets that same effect across much more successfully.

At the crux of this novel is the issue of truth: since the narrator is so unreliable, we cannot know for certain which version of his story is the 'real' one. How do you feel about fiction's ability to challenge our sense of truth?

I think that fiction's ability to challenge our sense of truth is one of its greatest assets, and a real advantage over non-fiction . I have so many bright and busy friends who say, "I just never have time for fiction anymore. I miss reading stuff that's just made up!" They think of non fiction as what's real, and fiction as an escape from what's real. But at the end of the day nonfiction is always just history in some form or another, and history gets rewritten every other day. What's true this year will be reconsidered the next year and revised again or ignored the year after.
In college, a professor described fiction to me once as, "That which could have happened, but didn't." We all understand, when we pick up a work of fiction, that these people never existed and these events didn't happen. So with that taken care of, we can focus on what really is true inside, and timeless. Raskolnikov is imaginary, but (spoiler alert?) the reasons he hacks that lady up with an axe are real. Gatsby's a figment, in more ways than one, but when no one shows up to his funeral we know it's the truth.

Do you believe in the adage, "a leopard can't change its spots?"

Writing wouldn't be very much fun if I did. Can anyone really change? I think we spend half our lives asking this question, and an equal half of our literature is surely dedicated to it as well. We can take up exercise, eat better, vow to fix any one of a million habits, but at the end of the day have we really changed? Fundamentally, has our outlook shifted, has our identity evolved, have we grown, plain and simple? I think it is absolutely possible, though my bookshelves are packed full of sad sacks who've tried to change and in the end, wound up right back with themselves again. The adage comes from the Old Testament, from the Book of Jeremiah. "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Neither can you do good, who are accustomed to doing evil." But it seems to me that if that were really true, you wouldn't really need the rest of the Bible. What we're accustomed to is not always who we are.

The narrator is—at different points in the book—an undergraduate studying the craft of literature and a professor of journalism. As both a teacher and former MFA student yourself, was it easier to write these scenes, or more complicated?

I'm not sure either scene was more or less complicated, but I can say that both were incredibly fun to write. As a professor of writing now, I spend a lot of time thinking back on when I was student, and trying to get a sense for what helped and what didn't. I learned a lot in those classes, about Dickinson and Hemingway and Faulkner and Salinger... a lot of things that I forget and remember again on a weekly basis. But what I learned and can't ever forget, is what it was like to sit in a room and feel like a writer. To take myself and my work seriously. To meet other people who also took themselves, and their own work , seriously. Sure, plenty of people laughed it all off, and some were just there for an easy A, but there were always one or two who really believed in it. That's what I mainly wanted to get across with the "Pinkerton and McGann" chapter, how writers are always competing with but also buoying one another.

In "Plagiarist in Dubai", the narrator has utterly lost that belief. He describes faking his way through graduate school but also through the classes he later teaches. He really revels in the fakery of it all. No zealot like a convert, I guess. He really sees what he's doing as a service to the students, and he's fallen quite far from the days when he was a student himself. He's teaching at a much larger university where it is not only easy to fall through the cracks but it is actually expected. Failure is built into the system, and so he sees it as his job to teach the students how to defy that cynical machine, through even more cynicism.

What are you working on now?

I'm hard at work on my second novel right now, which I can't say too much about yet. It's about a group of twenty-somethings who come to the big city after college and are trying with all their might to cling to the edges of the center of the universe they've created there . It's set in the new millennium and is even more personal, in many ways, than my first book. Leopards turned out to be so much more than I could have known it would be when I first started it, and so far this new project is surprising me in all the same ways and in several new ones as well.

Who have you discovered lately?

I've just started to read This Close, stories by Jessica Francis Kane, and they're absolutely beautiful. Every single detail is just perfectly rendered, and the dialogue sounds more real than when people are actually speaking. She has a novel too, The Report and I'm definitely going to find that the minute I get into a bookstore again. [The Report was a Holiday '10 Discover pick. -Ed.]

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 26, 2013

    The concept of a book within a book within a book sounded really

    The concept of a book within a book within a book sounded really intriguing to me---sort of like the movie "Inception" having dreams within dreams within dreams. It's certainly a unique concept. And it was also intriguing to bounce from place to place around the world and view these spots through the eyes of young writers. The changing character names as we moved from one book into the book within the book, etc., made it kind of fun and made me wonder at times which was the real book and who were the real characters. The characters were complex and intelligent, but I have to say not terribly sympathetic. A bit self-indulgent and selfish and not particularly honest, I'd say. And I did hope for a more profound ending, more exciting or surprising or something. But, and I don't want to be a spoiler, but the main character was always something of a loser and he ended up being something of a loser. I'd hoped he would be more special in the end, grow and evolve more. But it was a readable book with a good premise. 

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2013

    I didn't love this book, but I really really liked it. It is s

    I didn't love this book, but I really really liked it. It is superbly written and constructed. As a writer myself, I always enjoy books about writers and writing & the mad desire to write a good book and the oft attendant anxiety and jealousy. For me, this is enough of a conflict, although I realize that it might not be for the non-writers who are looking for a good story.
    Jansma has an amazing ability to create a sense of place. The wildly different locations - from Ghana to Iceland - all came alive for me on the page. I wasn't really all that invested into figuring out how the puzzle pieces of different stories fit together --I read for the separate stories themselves. These vignettes were fascinating to me. My one qualm was that the character of Evelyn (and her other alter egos) was a little flat, and I never felt any chemistry between her and the narrator. It was always jarring for me when she threw herself at him. I didn't feel his love for her; it seemed just stated on the page, a bit of a literary device. Then again, I really really like books about literary devices if they are superbly written and constructed. It's just this one, I didn't love

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 12, 2013

    Loved it.

    A great book.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 27, 2013

    The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a real gem - I haven't bee

    The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a real gem - I haven't been able to stop turning the pages!  Dinner, sleep and everything else can wait... I'm reading.

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  • Posted March 26, 2013

    As a fellow Brooklynite, I try to support New York City authors

    As a fellow Brooklynite, I try to support New York City authors - especially those who are recommended by Indiebound. The book was even better than I thought it would be. Not a knock on the author by any means. The prose was wonderful and it was like eating a chocolate chip cookie, but instead of being connected by sugary dough, the whole thing was chocolate chips. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2013

    Imaginative, surprising, and delightfully complex, The Unchangea

    Imaginative, surprising, and delightfully complex, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a treat from start to finish. You'll be sorry when you get to the last page!

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