Chapter 86: “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones (2004)

“This is a nigger who didn’t know what to do with his freedom. Thought it meant he was free.”

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10553313_731057526966442_6988145159454756636_nManchester County, Virginia doesn’t exist. Never has. Neither did the black slave owner, Henry Townsend. Nope. Not a real person. After reading Edward P. Jones’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Known World, however, you’d be excused for thinking so.

Hell, I did! Well, maybe not so much about Henry Townsend and Caldonia and Moses and a whole host of other characters (some memorable and many otherwise); but after reading this novel (which was a grueling two month battle, for reasons I’ll explain later), I thought for sure that Jones had put in an otherworldly amount of research into it.

I mean, the setting is so real, the telling of events is so vivid, the story is so natural, and Jones even cites the sources he studied for his research throughout the book. But the fact of the matter is this novel is completely fabricated. It’s all fiction, in every sense of the word. Furthermore, Jones didn’t do any research at all. There are passages like this:

[Manchester, VA] went through a period of years and years of what University of Virginia historian Roberta Murphy in a 1948 book would call ‘peace and prosperity’.

Jones goes on to tell you the publication history of that book, and a few more things about what was in it, and to imply that Roberta Murphy was a little racist. But there is no Roberta Murphy and there is no book. So what is Jones up to?

One reviewer, Wyatt Mason, notes:

What research on the subject Jones undertook was, in fact, quickly derailed after he happened upon an account of a white slave owner who spent her days abusing one of her black slaves, a little girl, by beating her head against a wall. “If I had wanted to tell the whole story of slavery, Americans couldn’t have taken that,” Jones told an interviewer. “People want to think that there was slavery, and then we got beyond it. People don’t want to hear that a woman would take a child and bang her head against the wall day after day. It’s nice that I didn’t read all those books. What I would have had to put down is far, far harsher and bleaker.

Slavery’s too much of a bummer? Tell me something I don’t know! But please don’t lecture me, The Reader, as to what I can and can’t handle in a work of fiction.

It’s not that The Known World is a feel-good novel. Ears and Achilles tendons will be sliced. It follows the rules of slavery books: slave narratives always had happy endings; later, fictional slave narratives always have sad endings. But Toni Morrison has a different opinion about what Americans can and can’t take. And Jones knows this, so he’s being disingenuous.

What’s more is he’s talking about books he didn’t actually read. Of this, NPR says:

Jones collected two shelves of books about slavery, but never got around to reading them. Still, the author was able to use his imagination, and stories he had heard growing up, to make his characters come alive. “I decided the people I’d created were real enough and I had just accumulated enough information about what the world was like in the South before 1865 to allow me to lie and get away with it,” he says.

When it comes to literary fictional works, authenticity has a curious duplicitous nature—a double-edged sword—and it walks a very narrow tightrope. This is even more true of historical fiction. As an author, you at least want your work to be grounded in reality; if it’s not, it then crosses over into fantasy (even sci-fi is somewhat based in reality). This becomes a very weird, grey, fuzzy area when an author presents a work of historical fiction as grounded in reality but is, in truth, a complete fabrication.

I don’t think Jones is implicitly lying to his readers; but he’s definitely not telling the truth. Neither of us read those two shelves of books about slavery so I can’t say whether or not The Known World is an authentic glimpse of this era or not. But citing imaginary sources throughout the book serves to either add authenticity that’s undeserved or underline the book’s lack of authenticity. Puzzling to say the least.

(All this talk of authenticity has me recalling (with no fondness) Geraldine Brooks’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner, March.)

Which, I have to say, as a reader, all of this left me kind of jilted. When I read the preview of this book and learned that it was the story of black slave owners in pre-Civil War Viriginia, I was utterly captivated and I dove into reading the book with a voraciousness I normally reserve for snacking on trail mix. Instead of a straightforward account of historical fiction, I was met with a plot that was nonlinear and stifling (though ultimately rewarding), a barrage of characters that came and went and nearly impossible to keep track of, and a setting that was constantly shifting. In one instant, I’d be on a farm in Virginia in 1855 and then immediately transported to a deathbed in 2002 and back again within a scant sentence or two. The one satisfaction I had in all of this was that at least it was a well-researched novel. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t researched at all. Instead it was just an author (a talented author, to be sure) making up stuff about a topic that he really didn’t know anything about.

The worst part of it was that it reads like a historical document. It was very interesting, but it wasn’t engaging; it dispensed with a lot of facts and details, but withheld emotion and urgency. For a novel that purported itself to be an authoritative fictional document, I felt very little connection to it. Sure, the book had its moments that piqued my interested and there were even a few times that I was eager to see what would happen next. I found his overlapping story lines that all intersect and diverge, weaving in and out of another, and coming together in the conclusion very interesting and well-crafted.

But the bottom line is that I was almost totally detached from the vast majority of The Known World. It was far too hermetically sealed up for me, as a reader, to fully enjoy, engage with, or connect to.

 

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