Friday, March 30, 2018

THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P. Jones

Like Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (a novel with which it otherwise contrasts in virtually every way), Edward P. Jones's The Known World seems like a 700-page novel that has been severely pared down to a more commercially viable length. It remains, however, a good and powerful novel with flashes of startling originality and even brilliance. The tale of the escaped slave mailed in a packing crate to New York and freedom is worthy of Garcia Marquez or Rushdie at his 1980s best; the confrontation scene between Henry and Augustus (Augustus, striking Henry with a walking stick: "Thas how a slave feel"; Henry, snapping the stick over his knee: "Thas how a master feels.") possesses a primal tragic power and a visceral, gut-level greatness. Most stunning of all, though, is  Augustus's kidnapping near the middle of the book, a scene in which the modulation from dark comedy to violent tragedy captures something of slavery's sadistic, absurdist evil that I've never before seen in American art. And even the novel's flaws are, for the most part, errors of ambition, 'positive' flaws: Jones tries to cram the whole history of his imaginary Virginia county into a single 388-page novel, and through judicious use of his signature flash-forwards, he almost convinces us; but the consequent thinness and uncertainty of his characterizations shows that William Faulkner chose the better road, spreading his Yoknapatawpha over an entire career's worth of books rather than stuffing the Snopses and Joe Christmas and Caddie and Temple Drake into a single seriously magnum opus. The Known World is not the second coming of Faulkner or Morrison, but it is very impressive for a first novel (more impressive, indeed, than the first novel of Faulkner and at least on a par with Morrison's The Bluest Eye), and hopefully it won't be this slow, deliberate writer's sole novel.

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