Review of The Known World by Edward P. Jones

by Dan Schneider


Edward P. Jones wrote a terrific book of short stories in 1991, Lost In The City, that was justifiably critically praised, for nine of its fourteen tales are great, but it was forgotten until his 2003 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning novel, The Known World, came out. Then his publisher, Amistad Press, rushed to reprint the earlier work, to cash in on the publicity, after years of pulping old copies. It is ironic, because in this edition of the novel, the best writing in the whole book comes from an epilogue that reprints perhaps the best of those tales, "The Girl Who Raised Pigeons," and it stands in sharp contrast to the jumbled, muddied work that is the bulk of Jones’ novel. Even its very title is muddied, as it primarily refers to the extant world of bondage it portrays, and a host of lesser oblique meanings- such as its primary setting.

That said, the book is not really a bad work of fiction, on the level of a T.C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, or, Heaven forfend!, Dave Eggers or David Foster Wallace, merely an overrated and mediocre one. On a 1-100 scale I’d say it’s a solid 70 or so, but clearly Jones’ is at his artistic height in his excellent short stories, where his poetic lines do not smear over into drab run-on sentences that can mix up tenses and lose the narrative push. Unfortunately, this book’s critical and popular success probably means Jones will kowtow and start publishing novels exclusively because, as the self-fulfilling prophecy goes, ‘short stories do not sell’, nor do they get optioned into films. This would be a shame, literarily speaking, because Jones’ tendency to overdescribe and toss so much at a reader so quickly works well in short bursts, especially in the spacial limitations of his short stories, for they lend a richness and heft to those works that the ‘airy’ and banal short stories of most current fictionists lack, besides also lacking narrative and any real characterization skills. But, in the novel, this tendency lets Jones linger far too long on minutia that never serves a later purpose in the book. Characters and things and incidents are detailed, then dropped totally. And they do not serve even a purpose of clarifying a later action nor the character they involve.

Far too much of this 388 page novel is devoted to the repeated going back to the death of one of its main characters, the black, thirty-one year old Henry Townsend, who owns fifty acres of land and thirty plus slaves.. This is, in itself, not bad, were each return to the era that the event occurs somehow skewed or heightened by a different perspective. Instead, we just lazily troll through the dying, death, funeral, and aftermath, even as the narrative bounces around through the decades of the 19th Century. It’s not that, as many readers have complained, the tale is difficult to follow, as it is simply dull. There are snippets of poetic description here and there, but the book has far too many characters, and, especially in the first fifty or so pages, Jones tosses so many people and events at a reader that it is easy to see why readers get lost. I did not get lost, I just found too much of it forced and unnaturally rushed. Even though set in a century noted for its laconic lifestyle, Jones cannot go back and recapture those rhythms in his own narrative voice. He is a product of the here and now present day, where everything must be detailed and explained for the lowest common denominator reader. Yet, no matter how extrapolated upon, the events within are simply not that compelling, and the characters are never revealed in depth by direct description nor recitation of the actions. This is not innately bad, as a technique, save for the execution in this tale, where Jones never gives us a framing event that the characters can react off of naturally. Almost the whole of the book is framed by forced drama that quickly devolves into forced melodrama, such the very idea of a black owning a slave, or the lingering death of Henry Townsend.

Henry was born a slave, and had his freedom bought by his father, Augustus. As a teen he became a leather craftsman, one of the finest in the state of Virginia. He worked hard, earned his keep, and bought some land and built a home. All this was under the aegis of his former master, William Robbins, a miscegenist with a constant hard on, and typically phlegmatic, if not erratic, personality, who taught him the benefits of slave owning in the fictive county of Manchester, in Antebellum Virginia. Jones does an excellent job in deep focusing the background of this fictive county, by providing bogus census information, but his foreground characterization, while detailed, never moves into a higher plane. Here we get Jones at his best, when discussing the macro-world:

Moses was the first slave Henry Townsend had bought: $325 and a bill of sale from William Robbins, a white man. It took Moses more than two weeks to come to understand that someone wasn’t fiddling with him and that indeed a black man, two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made. Sleeping in a cabin beside Henry in the first weeks after the sale, Moses had thought that it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man, but God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own kind. Was God even up there attending to business anymore?

Were he as deft in his more character driven moments, and in plotting out the book, the novel would deserve its many plaudits. But, the reader is never moved to care about any of the characters, who never seem to rise above being marionettes jerked to and fro by whatever the real reason for the book might have been. Interestingly, Jones’ book has been compared to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, most likely for the two writers’ skin color, for most critics have failed to note the hollowed caricatures that Morrison employs, which mirror some of Jones’ characters, yet their work is dissimilar in most other ways, save overarching subject matter.

Morrison’s writing, in that lauded, yet unsuccessful, book is far more herky-jerky, and suffers from even poorer and more trite characterization, as well as an anomic narrative. Jones’ book, on the other hand, suffuses the reader with details that are extraneous to the ‘essence’ of his tale, which, whatever it is, never fully coheres under the weight of the book’s excess verbiage. Yet again, here is another example of a popular book in desperate need of a professional editor to trim it into shape. Had the current narrative been cut down from its length to 220 or so pages, with another 60 to 80 pages of well directed writing, and a good end, attached, it might have deserved its accolades. As it is, time will not be kind to this flabby and overrated book.

There are, of course, other characters whose tales float in and out of Henry’s central death, but none leave much of an impression. There is Fern Elston, a mulatto teacher who can pass in proper society, Henry’s wife and widow Caldonia, their slaves like Mildred and Moses, who tries to fill Henry’s shoes- in the obvious ways, after his death, Elias the runaway slave, who trysts with another slave, dumb Alice, who was kicked in the head by a mule, as well as white characters like Sheriff John Skiffington. Each of them, and many others, get their moments in the book’s sun, as well as a voice, but none is fully realized, save, perhaps the dead Henry, ironically. After his death, though, the plantation falls apart, as his widow violates the rules of the institution by getting too close to some of her property, never heeding what her husband did, as told to by Robbins:

….the law expects you to know what is master and what is slave. And it does not matter if you are not much darker than your slave. The law is blind to that. You are the master and that is all the law wants to know. The law will come to you and stand behind you. But if you roll around and be a playmate to your property, and your property turns around and bites you, the law will come to you still, but it will not come with the full heart and all the deliberate speed that you need. You will have failed in your part of the bargain. You will have pointed to the line that separates you from your property and told your property that the line does not matter.

Predictably, much of the subsequent ‘intrigue’ of the book is of a definite soap operatic nature.

On the positive side, the book is not a tract on politics nor social values, the de facto textbook as didactic novel, nor is it simply a ‘modern’ book whose historical setting is just exotica, even as Henry wants to be a different kind of slaver:

Henry had always said that he wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known. He did not understand that the kind of world he wanted to create was doomed before he had even spoken the first syllable of the word master.

Owning human beings is incongruous to goodness, just as benevolence is to dictatorship. However, despite such sentiments, the book does not come into its own anywhere else between tendentious historical tract nor masqued modern novel, nor even somewhere around the corner, figuratively speaking. The novel does tend to be a bit light on historical realities, even as it does set some of its events against the historical backdrop of the many slave rebellions in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and this is because Jones tends to let a little too much wishful thinking get in the way of his tale. The primary culprit is the idea that whites, in the 1830s and 1840s South, routinely allowed slaves to buy their freedom, and form an idle bourgeoisie rather than a hardworking class of tradesman. This would not be such a problem if the tale held onto you with a death grip, or the characters inspired you, as they do in the truly great works of Charles Johnson, like Middle Passage and Oxherding Tale. Neither aspect rings true in this novel.

Furthermore, there are story elements that Jones tosses in rather haphazardly into the tale which telegraph later plot developments. That he does not realize this is bad enough, but if he does, did it for a purpose, then failed, his narrative solecism is all the worse. In Kurt Vonnegut’s great Slaughterhouse Five, time is used in a back and forth shuttle, and this enhances the plot because of the lead character’s obvious mental instability. In this book, because there is no singular narrator, the book loses its ground and unmoors into choppy waters. Then, it ends rather abruptly, and banally, after the death of one of its major characters, with no poesy nor resolution. You need at least one of those things to end a novel well. The Known World, instead, just sputters to an end, and its literal ending is emblemic of the neither here nor there tone of the whole obfuscated story:

Her meals to Moses would be until the end. Celeste was never to close down her days, even after Moses had died, without thinking aloud at least once to everyone and yet to no one in particular, ‘I wonder if Moses done ate yet.’

Not exactly a higher music to leave one with, especially at the end of a work of art purporting to be a revisioning of the past. Similarly, a muddled story is not necessarily a complex one. Finnegans Wake proved that, and this book does too, although it is far superior to Joyce’s syphilitic rant. Yet, it is also a story with no emotional center. Its anomic structure and haphazard characterization result in the reader not wanting to ever go back and reread a passage to get some import they may have missed, or are fuzzy on. And unlike its review in the New York Times, this book is not epic in the least, unless that term now means ‘padded’. Traditionally, the word implies a grand scale, and this book is the very antithesis of that notion. It is personal in the extreme. It just doesn’t make up its mind about which person nor thing it is really about, and thus there is no payoff for the reader, just several hours lost in an intriguing premise that never fulfills itself. That the book won so many awards is doubtlessly due to its subject matter, not its text. This is the new standard in literature, though, and we all suffer for it. At least Jones’ Known World is dead. This one, I fear, has a ways to go before the grave.