Allow me to begin by apologizing for the recent relative hiatus in regular posts to this blog. My fiancé and I have just completed a cross-country move, from Brooklyn to Oakland, and both my reading and writing took a bit of a backseat to dealing with the logistics of it all. I finished reading The Known World one day before departing Brooklyn, but was unable to find the time to actually sit down and write this review until today, nearly four weeks later, at a little table at Perch coffee shop on Grand Avenue in Oakland, CA, my new hood.
Now, Edward P. Jones is something of a legendary figure among contemporary writers. He’s often lauded as ‘one of the greatest writers of his generation’ or various other iterations of that notion. His first book, a collection of fourteen short stories, set among African-Americans in Washington DC, titled Lost in the City (1992) was both a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the PEN/Hemingway. Just over a decade later, he wrote The Known World, and came close to a clean sweep of the most prestigious literary prizes, winning both the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and narrowly losing the National Book Award to Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. Furthermore, his second short story collection (his third book), All Aunt Hagar’s Children (2006), also dealing with the life of African-American characters in DC, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner.
Per Neely Tucker for The Washington Post in 2009, Jones created nearly all of The Known World, in great detail, in his head, over the course of about ten years, actually writing only a few pages, until finally, once the story was a fully conceived thing, he hammered it out on paper in a three-month binge of wordsmithery.
In 2006, Dave Eggers, writing in The New York Times, claimed that The Known World “is considered by many (including this reviewer) to be one of the best American novels of the last 20 years. It’s difficult to think of a contemporary novel that rivals its sweep, its humanity, the unvarnished perfection of its prose and its ultimately crushing power. The book’s narrative force is so steady and unerring that it reads as though it was not so much written as engraved in stone. It became a classic the moment it was finished.”
And Eggers’s comments are not at all uncommon. The love and praise directed at The Known World is both intense and unanimous. And I’m not too keen to carve out my niche here as perhaps the sole detractor from this path of near universal praise—and I won’t, because I do have some positive things to say about the book—but I will stake a claim to a position that falls somewhat shy of head-over-heels commendation.
For one, though the novel has this meandering, old-school feel to it, there are a ton of characters steadily introduced throughout the book, and, as a reader, it’s difficult to calculate where precisely to focus your efforts. Who is a major character worth making note of, and who is a mere side character who will fall by the wayside? In fact, after I was about forty pages in, I went back and built a small database tracking the names, identities, and inter-relationships of every character in the novel, just so I could have a tool that would help me orient myself in the increasingly populated universe that Jones was just beginning to create. My assumption at first was that there were a number of characters that would be introduced in the beginning—perhaps more than in most other novels, but a manageable number nevertheless—and that the novel would then taper off, and the reader would be treated to a drama involving a robust collection of players. But what actually happened is that the number of characters just kept growing and growing, and building this database became more and more of a tedious task, to the point that I almost resented Jones every time he introduced yet another new character.
This is not to say that there isn’t some degree of consistent storyline that anchors the novel. At the novel’s center is the character of Henry Townshend, a black man, former slave, and current slave-owner in Manchester County, Virginia, in the mid-1800s, prior to the Civil War. The novel begins with his death, but leaps backward and forward in time to tell of his years as a slave, the story of his parents and how his parents secured first their, and then his, freedom, his gradual enrichment, his becoming a slave-owner himself, his marriage, et cetera. It’s an odd story, but powerful and riveting in its own right.
Now, there are ample tangential stories told here, as well. One of my favorites concerns Henry’s parents, Augustus and Mildred, both during their time as young parents, and later on in old age, when they don’t approve of the man Henry has become. And there’s the character of Moses, the first slave purchased by Henry. Interestingly, Moses is the first character we meet at the novel’s opening, and from the language in the novel’s opening chapter—containing passages like “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” (9) and “[Moses] was thirty-five years old and for every moment of those years he had been someone’s slave, a white man’s slave and then another white man’s slave and now, for nearly ten years, the overseer slave for a black master” (4)—one might at this point believe that the novel will largely center around his character.
But it doesn’t. And this is my central criticism. The novel just meanders along, bouncing from story to story, and it’s difficult to focus on or sink your teeth into any particular storyline. In the last one hundred or so pages, there develops something of a tension-filled storyline that I won’t say anything about for spoilage reasons, but it was too little too late, to my mind, to salvage my opinion of the novel as a complete, self-contained thing. In fact, now that I think more on it, the novel read, to my mind, as if it were, rather than a novel, merely a number of short stories thrown into a salad bowl and tossed a bit.
In closing, I don’t want this review to be taken as entirely negative. I’ve merely tried to describe a particular frustration I had in reading this masterpiece. I’m not in any way denying that it’s a masterpiece. Despite my frustration, I can’t deny that it is still a remarkable book, beautifully written, composed in glittering sentences of the sharpest precision, capturing both the darkness and depravity of American chattel slavery and the curious, sepia-tinted, pastoral beauty of the plantation-era South.