Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Known World

I read books so that you won't have to, but they're usually good ones. In February of 2005, however--

A Rant

The Known World: A Novel
Edward P. Jones

Quoth Amazon--
Award Winner: The Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award
Editorial Reviews -- Book Description
In one of the most acclaimed novels in recent memory, Edward P. Jones, two-time National Book Award finalist, tells the story of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave who falls under the tutelage of William Robbins, the most powerful man in Manchester County, Virginia. Making certain he never circumvents the law, Townsend runs his affairs with unusual discipline. But when death takes him unexpectedly, his widow, Caldonia, can't uphold the estate's order and chaos ensues. In a daring and ambitious novel, Jones has woven a footnote of history into an epic that takes an unflinching look at slavery in all of its moral complexities. 

Well, that's all fine, but a more incompetently written novel I have seldom seen. Some of the characters in this book are unlettered, and unaccustomed to the niceties of punctuation and grammar; but there's no excuse for the writer and editor to be likewise. Where to begin?

Consider: "The mule followed him, and after he had prepared the animal for the night and came out, Moses smelled the coming of rain." Why are people calling this beautiful writing, when it's not even grammatical? When you read it out loud, don't you stumble over the change of tenses? (In fact, every page I tried failed the reading-aloud test.)

Or this: "The 1940 U.S. census contained an enormous amount of facts,..." Ouch.

The characters are no less inchoate. "Fern Elston had chosen not to follow her siblings and many of her cousins into a life of being white." The paragraph goes on to explain why this was a good choice. The next paragraph begins, "But it had never crossed Fern's mind to pass as white." Well, which is it? Did she choose, or did she never think about it? Either assertion would tell us something about the character, but the contradiction is nonsense.

Worse, Jones cannot decide what part of the story he is telling at any given time. He can't resist foreshadowing, so much so that when we finally get to the episode in question, there's nothing left to tell. He also thinks nothing of going back over information we've long since been given. Here's page 143: "Calvin, Caldonia's twin brother, said to her, ..." This is meant to be helpful, perhaps, but have we really forgotten it since page 141? Are we being taken for amnesiacs, or is Jones just not paying attention?

In places, Jones seems to be writing with a pencil in one hand and an eraser in the other; we're told things and immediately told that they don't matter:
"Bennett started up again and Skiffington went down the steps to the road, the dust rising almost imperceptibly as he set both feet down. A good rain would do us all some good. He looked over his shoulder. The door to the jail was open just a bit, but it did not matter because he had no prisoners that day."

So why tell us about it? And is that second sentence a quote of what Skiffington is thinking, or what? How are we supposed to know? And why is he thinking that, if you can barely see the dust? And how do you set 'both feet' down, anyhow--did he jump off the last step, or should that be 'each foot'? Makes me cranky.

The overall effect is of being told the plot of a twelve-part miniseries by a carful of eight-year-olds. Breathless run-on sentences, narrative meandering into pointless dead ends, ceaseless interruptions for 'oh, yeah' explanations,-- the short of it is, you're not in reliable hands with the narrator. As storytelling, it's a soup sandwich.

This is the sort of book that B. R. Myers is describing in "A Reader's Manifesto", that makes you wonder what book the rapturous critics were reading. What makes them so snow-blind? Do they love to be bored by droning repetition? or confused by sentences that buck the reader off in the middle? or do they really find this novel "a modern masterpiece, which not only tells an unforgettable story, but does so with such elegance, grace, and mystery that it, finally, staggers the imagination."? That's from Jeffry Lent: remind me not to try reading his own bestseller.

I also have to wonder, if The Known World had had a competent editor, who had cut a hundred-plus pages of repetition and premonition, (and organized the events sequentially, and repaired the prose, and given the characters individual voices) would that better book still have won a Pulitzer? If not, why not? and if so, why didn't somebody see to it?

I know, I know, it's a waste of energy to hate something so passionately, but if this is what Literature is coming to, I'm going to stick to Books.


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