Any novel of literary rivalry has Martin Amis’s vicious comic tour de force The Information to contend with. So for its own good, let’s not call The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards (Viking, 272 pp., $26.95), Kristopher Jansma’s debut novel, a novel of literary rivalry. Let’s call it a coming-of-age novel in which both the protagonist and his best friend and archrival happen to be writers. It seems a requisite of novels these days that there is some kind of metafictional gimmickry, I mean aspect—Wait! What?!??! The novel I’m reading is the novel they’re reading in the novel!? (See, most recently, Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth)—and, yes, Spots has that sort of thing in it. Mostly it’s about relationships between people (one of whom, improbably, ends up becoming the Princess of Luxembourg) and the nature of truth. What is fiction? What is nonfiction? In the best chapter, wherein our globe-trotting hero successfully impersonates a successful journalist so that he can teach a lame “New Journalism” course at a mediocre New York university (the students think of him as “the professor who tells it ‘like it is’”) he mulls over things like “What is the one thing that is valuable in this world? The ability to lie.” Also, “The best novelists make you believe, as you read, that their stories are real.” Also, “I’d been pondering my chosen vocation—to write fiction and to slant the truth—to tell lies, for a living.” Sometime later in the book, he is attacked by a leopard. Mr. Jansma could stand to concern himself less with this truth and fiction genre-bending business—he is a promising novelist.
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