Edward Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Known World combines techniques or themes from some seriously great novels of the last fifty years, including Beloved, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and a faux-historical writing style I’ve seen before but whose origin I can’t place. Unfortunately, it ended up less satisfying than the great novels it emulates, so while a solid novel in its own right, it suffers from the inevitable comparisons the reader will make while moving through the book.
The center of the book is the estate of the slaveowner Henry Townsend, a black man who became free around age 20 but who chose to purchase slaves for himself and build his fortune on the backs of members of his own race. Townsend dies at the beginning of the novel, although we see large chunks of his life through flashbacks, and the bulk of the plot revolves around the gradual decaying of the tight order of things – the business operations and the formal and informal hierarchies – of the tiny empire he’s built on that estate. The wide cast of characters includes slaves, freed blacks, and whites whose lives intersected with the Townsends, often with disastrous results.
While whites are largely depicted as forces of evil in the book, whether directly bringing evil on the black characters or simply by opening the door for ill fortunate, Jones targets black slaveowners and even highlights black slaves who exercised formal or informal authority over others for their moral culpability in the suffering of slaves. Using a black slaveowner and his family at the story’s center allows him to remove the facile white-bad-black-good dichotomy that could obscure the greater themes of morality he’s trying to explore, and the resulting moral ambiguity suffuses the novel, such as the question of whether a “fair” slaveowner is any better than a cruel one, or what the value of a law is when men charged with enforcing it fail to do so or even openly flout it. Jones mentions other outrages of the time like anti-miscegenation laws, but brushes past them because they’re not worth his time – his interest, beyond just telling a story, seems to lie in exploring situations that lack right or obvious answers, and thus he ignores those where modern sensibilities will lead all readers to the same horror or repulsion.
Where The Known World fell a little short for me was in narrative greed – it’s obvious from the start that the plantation will crumble without Henry Townsend, and it was evident to me early in the book that Caldonia, his widow, wasn’t up to the task of managing it, which presaged, at a high level, what was going to happen with the slaves and the estate. The interest of the plot, for me, was largely in finding out the fates of the various central characters, particularly the slaves, although Henry’s parents do figure into the last major plot strand, one that I thought had a strong symbolic significance and was the only area where Jones took square aim at whites, even non-slaveowners, for their role in the great cultural tragedy of slavery. And Jones remains true to life – some characters find positive, if not actually happy, endings, while others meet tragic ends and some just end up in the great grey middle.
The faux-historical trick I mentioned in the intro merits a mention. Jones intersperses fake historical facts, written in the dry manner of a history text or even a census register, throughout the book, whether to tell us the fate of a minor character or to give shape or color to a place or a county or a period of time. I found it very effective, and it gave the book the feel of a longer one because of its level of detail, without requiring the time an 800-page book demands.
Next up: Since finishing this, I read Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder, the last published Christie novel, a solid but unspectacular Miss Marple novel that, as always, had me second-guessing my instincts (which turned out to be right, although I can hardly take credit after doubting myself so heavily) after I thought I’d picked out the culprit. After finishing that this morning, I’ve started Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the year before Jones won with The Known World.