Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Known World

I just finished "The Known World" by Edward P. Jones. A book this beautiful and profound deserves both recommendation and discussion here:

The Known World is by far the best book I have ever read by a living author. Edward P Jones' skill in painting character's lives and the world they inhabit is quite remarkable. The non-linear exploration of his characters makes for a mildly difficult but insightful read. Mr. Jones has rightly been compared to the brilliant William Faulkner. The Known World won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and if Mr. Jones continues to write like this he will almost certainly join Faulkner as a winner of the Nobel Prize.

The Known World tells the story of the fictional Manchester County Virginia in the years before the Civil War. The story centers around a freed slave named Henry Townsend who owns slaves and runs a plantation. The story explores Henry's entire world and the web of people in it. The story makes our common concepts of victims and abusers or race and class seem too trite and weak to explain the complex people of the story. The characters of the book are disconcertingly true to human nature. Even those who act monstrously are shown capable of incredible kindness, and even the most admirable of characters are rife with flaws and always in danger of falling from grace.

The crime of enslaving another human being is at the center of the story, but it is not a story "about slavery." The book examines our inherent bent towards misusing each other, of which slavery is one picture. Most of the book doesn't contain any intentional cruelty at all. The well-meaning people gradually created a world in which abuse and misuse is a part of life. It uncomfortably reminds the reader of how we often interact with each other in today's world. The author approaches his characters with such compassion that instead of righteous indignation we look on them with sympathy, "Father forgive them, they know not what they do." When chaos and violence finally erupts we can realize how easily it rose out of seemingly harmless acts of these well-meaning murderers.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book for discussion are the characters who “knew better.” I think particularly of John Skiffington the kind and honest sheriff. Skiffington is a good man who knows enslaving another human is wrong, but finds no way to avoid that it is a fact of the world in which he lives. He tries to keep the world stable by living righteously and keeping unjust laws as justly as he can, but his seemingly innocent entanglements in the injustices around him bring about his fall from grace and the ensuing chaos. In the end the good sheriff is more responsible for the crimes than the slave owners or the violent men who knew no better way. I found this righteous sheriff the most tragic and disconcerting character in all The Known World.

In a world like our own where the undesired are terminated, the neighbors and children of our enemies are bombed in the name of security, and property is more important than relationships are we not the same? We modern, enlightened people read books about the world of slavery and say, “Well I would have definitely stood up against those injustices!” but The Known World shows how easy it is to live with evil as part of the fabric of the only world you have ever known. Even if we recognize the evils in the world around us, we tend to give our opposition lip-service while benefiting from the security or wealth they provide. Someone like myself with a tendency toward rants might be tempted to call The Known World a "call for action," but it would not be an honest look at the work. The generous Edward P. Jones doesn't ask his characters to save the world, he even forgives them as they are destroying it. Perhaps he hopes with a bit of introspection we might be a little better than our ancestors.

If you are looking for a fascinating read I highly recommend The Known World. If you have read it I would love to hear your thoughts on the book...

3 comments:

Jasmin said...

sounds good, I think I'll check it out...

JD said...

Amy accidentally posted her response to this post on the "Passage of time" entry.

You can read her response here.

Anonymous said...

I think Jones did a phenomenal job with this novel. The intricate web of characters created a strong emotional attachment, for me, with Manchester. After the first read I felt weighed down by the struggles that these characters faced. Jones is a genius in that he created characters that do horrible things, but as a reader I felt unable to job them because of the situations they had been placed in. I particularly enjoyed the role that Alice’s in/sanity played in the novel and the question of whether she feigned insanity to escape or if she became sane after reaching freedom (I read an article from the 1840’s in which a doctor claims that free blacks are more likely to have mental disorders than enslaved blacks and that slavery is actually saving the mentality of the African-American race…absurd). Also, after a second time skimming the book I realized that Augustus in fact owns his own son, Henry, and although he kicks out Henry for owning a man, he is unconsciously being a hypocrite. This reflects upon the less-thought-of notion that free black were in fact able to become slave owners and perpetuate the “peculiar institution.” Another thing that really interests me about this book is that Caldonia takes on the role of a white slave master when she sleeps with Moses and then questions if it is in fact “miscegenation?” This novel is stacked full of thought provoking ideas and I am very please that Jones won the Pulitzer for this. I look forward for literary criticism to begin to be published on it!