Monday, September 1, 2008

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

I met a dead man laying in Massa lane
Ask that dead man what his name
He raised he bony head and took off his hat
He told me this, he told me that

To see at night one must look to the side of an object.

The reviews will tell you that the protagonist of this story is Henry Townsend, a slave who purchases his freedom with his earnings from his skill as a boot maker. He himself becomes an owner of other humans. What does he want? He wants to be the best master ever. What are his obstacles? They are everything and everybody in Manchester County, Virginia, the embodiment of the Ante Bellum South. If Henry is the protagonist, the story starts at a strange time, his death.

I read the first chapter. I read the last. I read the second. I read the next-to-last. I use this trick when I read troublesome books to know the beginning and the end and decide if I want to know how the writer got there. I decided I wanted to know.

Henry comes back again and dies again. This is not a resurrection because the author does not bind the narrative by time. The story is episodic, revealed slowly, somewhat as the American South is revealed to those who were not born and raised there.

It is a basic principle of the contemporary storyteller’s craft that the story be entered at the last possible moment. This dogma is driven by television, has harnessed cinema and dominates every other art form of this age. I did not feel that I entered this story until chapter four. But, I knew when it ended. By then, I knew what it was about.

I learned why it is a sin to tell a lie. The author never lied to me, but what he didn’t tell me led me in circles in the woods. He taught me there’s more than one way to tell a story, but to learn it, I had to be patient.

This story is about the known world, but I won’t tell you about it. You’ll have to learn for yourself. I did and I wasn’t disappointed.

You might want to read the reviews first. They’ll help lure you into continuing, but they won’t really tell you what it’s about either.

I met a dead man… he told me that.


Amanda said...

Do you think it would have been easier had you read it linearly?

Booger said...

No, for me it was easier the way I did it. I needed a reason to trudge through the middle of the book. It was 388 pages. It had a big fat middle. I tell the librarian to pick books that are 300 pages or less, but she doesn't listen to me. It started out funny, not funny ha ha, but funny peculiar. If it was boy meets girl, I would have known where it was going and I would have been all right with reading it linearly. But, it started out with Henry dying. What kind of a place is that to start? I figured Edward P. Jones broke the rules, so I can, too. Fortunately, I didn't read all the way to the end when I attacked from the rear. There was a part that looked like a letter. I thought it was an afterword and I don't like forewords or afterwords, so I skipped it. When I did read it, it turned out to be a real zinger and it tied the whole thing up for me. So don't you go peeking at that part or you will spoil it for yourself.