In ‘The Known World’, Edward P. Jones creates, as per his title, a complete little world, Manchester County (fictional), in pre-Civil War Virginia, but also occasionally projecting, with his wide cast, right up into the present day. The achievement of this―the back-stories, interaction and balancing of the many characters―bolstered by accomplished prose, is no doubt part of what won Jones the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, Publisher and Books Critics Circle Award, and 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. I’m supposing the other part had to do with the ethical heft of his subject matter: an examination of how slavery distorts and degrades a society beyond moral repair. In a situation where men can own other men wholly, good men end up doing bad things, and bad men the unspeakable.
Not that slavery is anything unusual in human affairs, presently thriving as ever in the Middle East and North Africa (which established networks serviced the American South), and elsewhere throughout the world. Mid nineteenth century, when the novel is largely set, Russia was also a slave economy, although skin colour was not a factor and emancipation eventually meant integration, which has not occurred in the United States, still bedevilled by racism.
It’s a pleasure to read a modern novel that has a compelling purpose; in so much contemporary literature, skill and erudition seem disproportionate to any impact or lasting effect. Of course this work is historical, but because of the persistence of racism, the resonances carry through and present hatreds are given cause and shape. Have a good look at how it all started, says Jones, little wonder we have these big problems today. And it’s salutary to have one’s eyes opened, to be jolted from comfortable middle-class complacencies and observe in close detail a ‘functioning’ society, comprised of people like you and me, so utterly cruel and inhumane.
The first big moral shock in the book, cannoning through to the end, is of a black man, a former slave, owning other blacks as slaves. As a non-American reader, I had no idea that this happened or could happen―I remember being astonished years back that native Indians kept black slaves when I read William Faulkner’s story ‘Red Leaves’―and what this shows is that this particular form of human degradation was regarded as completely normal throughout the ante-bellum South. Anyone who could, should own a slave. Why not? This slave owner dies at the opening unleashing a gradual breakdown of all kinds of order, culminating, in a sense, with the (spoiler alert) upright Christian sheriff of the area gratuitously shot dead by his own deputy and cousin. This is really the end, Jones seems to be saying, with any possibility of justice completely blown away. Between these two bookends we are witness to all types of appalling abominations, par-for-the-course then and there, presumably.
So, an admirable achievement, this novel, and highly praised and prized all round, still I would like to take issue with Jones’s overall approach. Some of the critics naturally compare ‘The Known Word’, given its length and scope and general realism (there are a few discordant ‘magic realist’ touches), to the great nineteenth century novelists, Tolstoy, Hardy, Elliot etc. where moral purpose is conjoined to a broad and detailed portrait of a society. And in one specific Jones uses the same device as Tolstoy in ‘War and Peace’, giving most characters a single personal trait, gesture or act or marking, so that we can recognise them when they re-appear in the canvass.
But Tolstoy’s huge novel, with its cast of hundreds, is actually a story of a handful of people, two linked families with Pierre as the go-between. Intimately drawn figures set in a broad landscape. Jones takes a more ‘Brechtian’ approach, giving almost equal weight to his large number of protagonists. The effect, which I’m sure is intentional, is, like Brecht’s ‘alienation’, a distancing one. Jones is more concerned to show us the ‘scene’, rather focus too much on any personal drama. The whole picture is what the book is about, the society of slavery, rather than the personal turmoil of any Pierre or Dorothea or Tess.
This works for a while, but what I found as I progressed was that I started to lose interest; the ‘alienation’ was working all too well. I struggled against this, with such worthy material, but still had to push myself to finish. And this was simply because it wasn’t anyone’s particular story, but everyone’s. I wanted someone, or a couple of souls, closely known and felt, to carry me through this hellish journey with them. A human failing maybe, but there I was at the close suitably shocked and enlightened, but not moved. Jones had engaged me morally and intellectually, but not vitally. Consider: if, say, Tess’s own plight moves me deeply, I then become personally enraged considering the wider injustices that as a working-class woman she is forced to suffer because of the society in which she lives. The old Aristotelian identification. And surely, one assumes, this is the sort of response Jones is seeking.
A common critical failing to fault something for what it lacks, but with such a big complicated work, I think that perhaps Jones, in his earnestness and ambition, has not taken into sufficient account his readers and their natural desires. After all, you’d really prefer they’d be reading ‘The Known World’ than ‘Gone with the Wind’.