grist

 

Wednesday, June 30, 2004
Life has intruded (pesky life!) in ways that have held off both reading and writing, but the hiatus is ending. One of the blessings of difficult times is that it lets you see how much people care for you, and for them, it lets them demonstrate their affection and desire to be helpful without feeling overwhelming or inappropriate. There is a sweet coming together of need and the desire (and love) to provide that lets us all lay bare the goodness in us--the generosity and kindness and thoughtfulness. It makes apparent how muted we are in the general run of our days when those veins are hidden or suppressed. Thank you my many great good friends for your support and thoughts and I wish we could all feel this affection without adversity to provoke it.

I finished up Edward Jones' The Known World a few weeks ago; it has been getting a ton of critical attention and it deserves all of the good things said about it. It's an excellent book in a remarkably quiet way. Jones is writing about an explosive topic (black slave owners), and there is room in his story for all manner of violence, horror, sentimentality, brutality, etc. And what he does is tell layers of stories with all of their good and bad in a manner that came to seem both rich and diffuse. Two things worth noting about it:

His real strength, I think, is in his writing of scenes (as opposed to language, or dialogue, or plotting, etc.) The novel overall is an accumulation of small moments that rise to a number of extraordinary scenes that overtake you before you realize it. Thus the history of Augustus Townsend, his modest dignity and years of careful planning, his structured peace, the delicate balance he has made between the white world and the black, builds to the moment when the patrollers eat his papers and sell him back into slavery. Jones provides no commentary--there is almost no inflection in the prose at all--none is needed. I found myself reading--skipping ahead, thinking this can't be happening--this can't be happening. It is intensely horrible and its power is in revealing the horror that is there rather than building something up to be horrible, or manufacturing elements that combine to be horrible. It is masterfully done.

One other note--Jones uses an odd--mostly compelling, sometimes frustrating structure to tell his stories. He lights on a series of events--some small and some larger, and then has the narrative ripple out from there. So he stakes out an event--when Oden cuts off part of Elias' ear, and then subsequent moments are set relative to that event--"that Tuesday night after", "some two weeks later, another Sunday, after Moffett had come and preached and gone"--until a new event takes over. This gives the book a localised, personal, oral feel--there is not a grand sweep of events here, but people in their days reacting to what is around them and remembering what they remember instead of what might be the most significant by some outward determination. It takes some getting used to because it means the overall ground is uncertain, relative. But it is very successful for the book as a whole because it keeps everything personal rather than historical, real rather than reflected. A worthy read--4.5 stars



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