Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Great Novel: The Known World by Edward P. Jones

The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Amistad/HarperCollins, 2003

I had heard very good things about Edward P. Jones’s novel The Known World and I had thought of reading it at different times, though I had a reservation to believing that a novel depicting slavery would be as original or as satisfying as I wanted any novel to be. Jones’s book is, in fact, as near perfect a novel as I have read in quite a while, a book that allows the reader to confront a complex, difficult history (a time of slavery, in which some of the slave-owners are black), and a book in which the writer adds enough beauty and wisdom that one can bear it.

Wisdom cannot exist without the acceptance of the facts of human life, and The Known World seems a wise book. Edward P. Jones makes American history his, illuminating public practices of power and private deceptions of the psyche. Edward P. Jones’s The Known World presents an appreciation of nature, unique economic and social relations, and subtle movements among people: a freshly imagined world. It is a book of small, brilliant enchantments but also horrific reversals of fortune that read like justice delivered. Jones possesses an easy mastery of difficult matters of craft and of human relationships, of style and of content. Jones suggests the diversity of black life even during slavery. Jones presents a world in which an unexpected African-American refinement is achieved and sustained, though achieved with some moral contradictions (these are people whose refinement does not preclude owning other people); and it is a world in which the decencies of people of European descent include ignorance and prejudices that can seem infinite. The Virginia writer captures the cruelty of families broken and separated as property.

Edward Jones tells stories within stories within stories, and has the interesting (and yet gratifying) oddity of naming the destinies of his characters long before the novel’s end. There is extraordinary foreshadowing: a father shakes his young son in angry disappointment, and later when that son is a man the father, again in angry disappointment, hits him and hurts him (the father cannot believe his son would accept and perpetuate slavery). It is a bitter irony that the father, a man who bought his own freedom and that of his family is sold again into slavery by a hateful (white) man who resents the father’s pride. (That is historical fact and also allegory: as with much else in the novel, such things did occur.) The violations of the social order—when “races” mix—can be so unnerving to some that they themselves feel crazy. This is a book full of history, imagination, and life.

Even the incidental characters are interesting: a boy who rules his country family with honesty and rudeness; an exploited woman who becomes a prostitute and who inadvertently brings disease to a great land-owning family. In Moses, a slave separated from a woman he loved, and made an overseer, there is suffering and pride—and a frustrated hope when he becomes involved with someone who could free him if she chooses.

Yet, despite the writer’s significant talent, the book’s ending—which involves nearly cataclysm as well as deliverance and revelation—is a stretch of the imagination that may be a little too much. I am not sure about that ending, and it is worth thinking about, as is so much of this novel, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World.