It takes remarkable daring for a writer of fiction in 2003 to leap into the mind of a slave, and even more bravado to try to understand what it must have been like, in 1855, to transmogrify, in one short lifetime, from slave to free man to black slave owner — a singularly tragic category of humanity that indeed existed in several Southern states. But Edward P. Jones’ troubling, often breathtaking debut novel, The Known World, deserves credit for more than just degree of difficulty; at his considerable best, Jones seems to be writing from deep within the core of slavery itself, and letting the effects of subjugation cry out from his characters to shattering effect.
Although the black-slaveowner hook will likely drive the novel’s initial publicity, ”World” quickly spirals outward from Henry Townsend to encompass the lives of his widow, his parents, his former owner, his own slaves, their husbands and wives and children, other freed men, and so forth. Although Jones’ writing is plainspoken and tonally neutral — making this a fascinating counterweight to Toni Morrison’s ”Beloved” — his book is clearly the product of copious research, and sometimes he seems so intent on letting every story he’s unearthed be heard that he sacrifices structure and momentum. In less than 400 pages, ”World” tries to find room for enchained slaves and escaped slaves, for sexual relations between owners and slaves, for mixed-race women who ”passed” as white and others who didn’t or wouldn’t, for patrollers who made their livings rounding up escapees, for slave children fathered by their owners, and for slave owners haunted by their children. It also takes temporal leaps — sometimes decades in a single paragraph — that will frustrate more than a few readers trying to gain a foothold in this alien universe.
Maddening as it sometimes is, the difficulty and occasional randomness of Jones’ storytelling doesn’t seem accidental. He’s writing about a landscape in which families, identities, and the very notion of self can be destroyed in the course of a casual business transaction — and he doesn’t want you to get too comfortable tracing a single life across a tidy narrative line. The emotional cartography he asks readers to follow is not supposed to be easy.
But the literary year is unlikely to yield a scene whose insight exceeds this one, in which a 40-year-old slave awakens from a dream: ”There in the dark he realized that he did not even remember his parents’ names. Did they have names?… They must have, he told himself…. If his parents did not have names, then maybe they had not existed, and so could not have created him. Maybe he had not even been born, but just appeared one day as a little boy and someone, seeing him alone and naked in some lane, had taken pity on him and given him a home.” This is slavery as it has never been written about or imagined before, and it is essential reading.