Why do many historical novels, especially the zealous and ambitious ones, strike me as being so clumsy? I would suggest that the problem arises from an almost intrinsic inflexibility of the novel—which has always been a narrative form built around the exploits and perspectives of individuals—when it tries to addresses causes and results of a social and collective nature. For better or worse, storytelling coexists comfortably with heroes and villains, and gets lost when it tries to portray a Zeitgeist or even what demographers quaintly call a “cohort group.”
This is why the battle scenes in Homer always get reduced to a series of conflicts between two people. Even the great epic poet nods, or rather gives up when faced with the challenge of describing the reality of the battlefield. Much rarer is the daring of War in Peace, in which Tolstoy comes close to capturing the essence of large scale conflict—yet even in this masterpiece, the novelist succeeds mostly because he openly embraces the chaos of the confrontation, a confusion so pervasive that even a Napoleon is incapable of grasping its true particulars. Yes, it is all too revealing that the greatest war novel of all time succeeds by admitting its inability to make sense of its subject matter.
A novel such as Edward P. Jones’s The Known World faces a different, if related challenge. In focusing on the situation of masters and slaves in the antebellum South, Jones is addressing a subject that immediately forces us to grapple with issues of good and evil. In other words, a historical novel of this sort is inevitably a vehicle for reflection on moral values. Yet, given the individualist tilt of this narrative form noted above, such a tale must take on the guise of a tale of heroes and villains. Such novels generally proceed by identifying the “good guys” and “bad guys” in the opening chapters, and then moving them towards either a happy or tragic ending.
Yet Jones refuses to play this game. Much of The Known World deals with the situation of blacks compromised by their social setting, and becoming slave owners themselves, or serving as overseers—essentially slave drivers who enforce and preserve the same system of exploitation in which they themselves are victims. Here the hero can turn out to be the villain, and Darth Vader doesn’t always wear a scary mask to help you sort out the underlying allegiances.
In short, the reader of this book encounters an unsettling degree of moral ambiguity at almost every turn. True, there are a few characters in this novel who are clearly evil, and others (not many) who are working on the side of the angels, but more common are folks who, in another place and time, might have led honorable, decent lives, but in this corrupt environment find themselves tainted with the general contagion. The evil seems to pervade the atmosphere, like the relentless humidity of the Virginia counties that are the setting for Jones’s story.
The novel as a narrative form is poorly equipped to deal with such complexity because it wants instead to reduce evil to a personal quality. In his elaborate recent novel The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell attempted to show how the Nazi system bureaucratized evil, so that it resided in institutional structures that made a mockery of individuals’ attempts to decide their own degree of culpability. The most salient moral lesson one could derive from this type of narrative was the famous Dostoevskian claim that “Everyone is responsible for everyone and everything.”
Littell, for, his part tried to resurrect the ancient notion of destiny, a sense that a sick social structure can lead ordinary people to do terrible things. The fact that Littell’s novel was savagely attack on ethical grounds—almost staggering to consider, given the resistance modern-day literary critics have to seeing storytelling as a moral endeavor; remember how they reacted a generation ago to John Gardner’s attempt to promulgate that approach to reading books?—tells you how unprepared readers are for an approach to good and evil that does not clearly define these as personal attributes. Mr. Littell was told by his American critics—but interestingly enough, not by his European reviewers, who lavished praise on his book—that he should stick with the heroes and villains, and not complicate our lives with a macro-level overview.
I suspect that many readers find Jones’s The Known World equally unsettling, and for similar reasons. Few characters are able to resist the institutionalized evil around them, and those that attempt to do so will not survive until the end of the novel. On the other hand, the most villainous people here are frequently rewarded for their ruthlessness. And most difficult of all, at least for the thoughtful reader, are those who try to navigate in the middle. Fern Elston could pass for white, but is committed to a life as a teacher in the African-American community, where she works hard to educate the black youth, yet she becomes a slaveowner. The free black man Henry Townsend also owns human property, yet vows to be “a better master than any white man he had ever known.” John Skiffington and his wife Winifred are opposed to slavery, yet when a relative gives them a young black girl as a wedding gift, they decide that raising her as if she is their daughter is better than selling or freeing her. What verdict do we pass on these individuals? Can we hand out guilt in gradations, or does it resist parsing in this manner?
Jones adds still more layers of complexity and interpretation to this multilayered story. He mixes in passages about later researchers who are writing about the same period he is dealing with in his novel. These appear, at first glance, to be intrusions from the author’s research, but in fact they are also constructed fictions. Yet they effectively force the intrusion of one worldview into the midst of another. The result is disruptive . . . and very thought-provoking.
Jones also makes extensive use of flashbacks and anticipations. I have mentioned elsewhere that Richard Russo is the smoothest contemporary novelist at integrating these time-sequence shifts into his stories. Well, Jones is the exact opposite—he goes out of his way to avoid a smooth transition. Sometimes he leaps ahead several decades within a paragraph, creating a change in perspective so sudden and unanticipated that it instills a sense of vertigo in the reader.
In truth, the changes Jones works are sometimes so extreme that they border on implausible. When the future of a character is foretold it is always something extravagantly good or terribly bad. Sometimes it seems that the players in this drama either get a PhD at Yale twenty years later or die in prison, but never anything in between. Yet even here Jones resists expected resolutions, and the later successes or failures of individuals rarely appear connected to their native talents and inclinations as presented at the starting-point.
One of my big gripes with contemporary storytelling is its increasing reliance on static characters who never evolve but remain true to type—indeed, they are only a step above being a symbol—and then play predictable roles in a narrative that moves towards an equally predictable conclusion. This has always been true of stories that are presented on television dramas, and increasingly has been true of motion pictures. But now even the literary novel buys into this concept. The motives for this flattening of the narrative are many—sometimes they are altruistic (“this book is for a good cause”) and sometimes they are mercenary (“this book will make a lot of money”). But the end result is the same: a book that tells you what to think rather than forces you to think.
But that is not the case with this brilliant, provocative novel. There are deep moral lessons here, but they aren’t pre-digested for the reader. As a result, few contemporary novels are better suited for a classroom discussion than The Known World. But even if you have left the classroom behind (or replaced it with a different kind of schooling), this is a novel that should be part of your continuing education.