Over the years I’ve picked up The Known World by Edward P. Jones a bunch of times then put it down because this is Serious Pulitzer Prize Winning Literature which is not really my thing. This time I actually read it, because why not branch out a bit?
It’s a gorgeous, sad, hopeful book about slaves and slave owners and bystanders. The beginning was disorienting though because the book shifts between people and times and I kept trying to place when we were and who it’s about. It isn’t a linear story where this happens then that happens then there are ninjas, but more like a tangle you look at from far away where you follow some of the threads then you look somewhere else for a bit. Not being an English major, it took me a few pages to accept that there is no when and who.
Generally, whenever I’m thinking a lot about a novel’s structure I feel like it’s less a book and more a parlour trick but I really liked it here. Because when you talk about people you don’t talk in lines; you say stuff like “Did you hear my friend Bill’s an accountant now? Remember that thing he did back in high school? Oh, I heard this story about his mom in the seventies. Speaking of Bill…” Or, I imagine you do if you have a friend named Bill.
Also, I like that I never had the impression Edward P. Jones was looking over my shoulder saying “I put this part in so you would notice how Slavery is Bad.” It’s already obvious that slavery is bad. Although I will say, it’s probably a lot easier to believe that when you have electricity, running water etc. and you don’t need slaves to harvest your sugarcane.
It struck me that you see people proposing all kinds of crazy with straight faces but I have yet to see anyone pushing to bring back slavery. Hey, progress! (This is not an invitation to send me links to internet manifestos of slavery proponents. I try to retain some faith in humanity.)