Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Review: The Known World by Edward P. Jones

I have been struggling to write this review for the last few days. I had a very hard time finishing this book. It certainly would have been abandoned if it weren't my book club selection. Yet, it won the Pulitzer. Many other people have found it to be the pinnacle of literary accomplishment. So what is my problem with it? It started with the blurbs at the beginning of the book. It is compared to Cold Mountain (didn't like, abandoned 2/3 of the way through), Beloved (didn't read but hated the movie), Faulkner (who I find tedious and wordy for the sake of hearing himself talk), and Garcia Marquez (I abandoned A Hundred Years of Solitude halfway through, thoroughly frustrated, though I can certainly see the comparison, which coming from me is not a compliment.)

I find any time there's a list of characters, it's a red flag. If even the author is acknowledging that it's just too hard to keep track of the enormous cast, then perhaps more judicious editing was in order, not a list of characters. In addition, not only were there just too many characters, there was too much detail about everyone. For instance: "Ralph would go to live with his people in Washington, for with Clara's death relatives materialized from high and low and he was then without a home. The relatives sold the land to William Robbins, which angered Robert Colfax. Ralph's people in Washington were not as bad as he had always thought. The drunkard had found God a week after a Fourth of July and had said good-bye to the bottle for good."

Clara doesn't die in the course of this book. This whole above paragraph is erroneous information about something that will happen decades after the events of the book. Ralph is Clara's slave, and he only appears in the book for less than 10 pages, never to reappear. Why on earth do we need to know how he lives out his elderly years? Mr. Jones really needed an editor with a firmer hand. This is just one example but this kind of thing happens frequently throughout the novel. The book's events mostly play out over a three-week period (although at the end we zip through another month or so) but we find out most characters' entire life stories from birth to death, no matter how minor or irrelevant. Since the author was not focused enough to weed out irrelevant information, that task is left to the readers. But as we don't know the main plot (in fact I'd venture to argue there isn't one) or how the story will end, we don't know who will prove to seem minor but have a larger impact later, so we have to hold on to all the information. It's exhausting, and a job the author should have done, not the reader.

The story is ostensibly about Henry Townsend, a free black man in the 1830s, his overseer slave, Moses, his widow, Caldonia, and how they deal in the aftermath of his premature death. Henry is already dead when the story begins but then we jump back in town to his childhood, to his parents, to his apprenticeship, his freedom, his education, his purchase of slaves, his courtship of Caldonia, and so on. Do we really need this kind of detail about a character who isn't even alive? Oddly, we never get this level of history about Caldonia, which also makes it hard to judge when the information is irrelevant and can be discarded, as some major characters remain sketches while very minor ones are fully drawn.

The book is rambling. It does not have a straightforward narrative. It jumps back and forth in time, over nearly a century all told, with no discernible path. It is lyrically written but at the expense of understanding which I find unforgivable. In a novel, poetry should never take priority over plot. (And yes, from that statement you can accurately assume I don't like Joyce either.) Aside from the ethics of a free black man owning slaves, I don't know what there really is to discuss at book club. All in all, I was disappointed. I found my fears upon reading the blurb comparisons completely founded.


Shelley said...

I agree with all of you comments. I just didn't like this one at all.

Jeane said...

Several in my family loved this book so I picked it up once but just didn't get very far. I've had this nagging feeling I ought to try it again someday, but your review has dissuaded me well of that! does not sound like my kind of story at all.

Dusty said...

We may share some genes but not necessarily in lit. I loved Cold Mountain and The Known World. Although I struggled with One Hundred Years and with Faulkner, I grew up reading RLStevenson, and Dickens--that must have prepared me.