Author Archives

Adam Morgan is the editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books who writes about place, books, and the arts for The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere. He now lives in Charlotte, NC.

‘I Spent Two Years Researching Before I Wrote a Single Line’: Geeking Out With Marlon James

Mark Seliger / Penguin Random House

Adam Morgan| Longreads | February 2019 | 8 minutes (1,962 words)

I understand why Marlon James calls his new trilogy “an African Game of Thrones” — it builds the right expectations for an epic fantasy with dozens of characters spread across warring kingdoms. However, judging by the first book in the series, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, another apt comparison, especially when it comes to style and structure, might be “an African Gormenghast.”

Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series (1946-1959), if you’ve never read it, is a dense literary labyrinth that makes A Game of Thrones and its sequels look downright old-fashioned. The story of a wealthy heir who lives in a vast, crumbling castle, Gormenghast has never been wildly popular thanks to its challenging style, but it does hold cult status among scholars and writers like Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Sofia Samatar, even Harold Bloom. “Reading it at the age of 13,” Samatar has written, “I understood that fantasy, the place I was looking for, is not to be found in dragons, ghosts, or magic wands. It resides in language.”

Growing up in the suburbs of Kingston, Jamaica, Marlon James didn’t have access to many fantasy novels, but he did stumble upon Gormenghast as an adult. “It was like a blueprint for how the fantastical grows up,” he says, echoing Samatar, adding that it’s the one book that “continues to rule his life.”

Perhaps that’s why Black Leopard, Red Wolf takes so many narrative risks. It’s a sprawling series of stories within stories that fold back on themselves, a hypnotic spoken-word fable full of sex, violence, and magic. It’s not quite what you’re expecting — and it’s all the better for it. Read more…

Putting a New Stone on the Grave: Sjón Brings the Golem to Iceland

Door to attic of the Old New Synagogue where according to myth the golem rests. Slowcentury / Getty

Adam Morgan | Longreads | September 2018 | 10 minutes (2,560 words)

In the summer of 1990, an Icelandic writer named Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson traveled to Czechoslovakia with his friend, the singer-songwriter Björk. Their alternative rock band, The Sugarcubes, was performing in Prague because of the city’s folk status as the birthplace of the sugar cube. But while they were in town, Sigurðsson made a pilgrimage to the Old Jewish Cemetery, where the legendary creator of the Golem of Prague had been buried more than four centuries earlier. After placing a stone on his grave, Sigurðsson asked the rabbi for help solving a personal problem, and in exchange, promised to bring the golem into Icelandic literature.

Today, Sigurðsson goes by the name Sjón. In 2013, when his surreal novels were first translated into English by Victoria Cribb, critics compared him to Borges, Calvino, and Kafka. Most of his books are less than 200 pages, but this week sees the publication of CoDex 1962, a labyrinthine epic that invites comparison to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Originally published as three separate novels in Iceland in 1994, 2001, and 2016, CoDex 1962 is Sjón’s fulfillment of the pact he made in the Old Jewish Cemetery almost three decades ago. Read more…