"Who would have thought that what may be the best novel ever written about American slavery would be about slaveholders who were black?" Earlier this week, Common-Place published a review of The Known World, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edward Jones, and it began with that question. The review is a good introduction to the book for those who don't already know it, and it reminded me that I should finish reading the novel sometime.
Even so, I was more intrigued by this Guardian profile of Jones, who published his first novel at age 53 after working for 18 years as a proof-reader and columnist at a small tax magazine. After describing how the success of The Known World enabled him Jones to move out of his noisy apartment, the article writes:
Jones is still sleeping on the floor. Four months after moving in, his new apartment in north-west Washington DC remains bare except for the 100 cartons of unpacked books, the air mattress he cannot be bothered to inflate and the new laptop that is a recent and slightly grudging admission of his status as a full-time writer.
Yet for a man wedded to a minimalist lifestyle - unmarried with no children or pets, a self-described loner with a relatively compact group of friends - Jones has produced a book remarkably full of people and life.
The book is set in the entirely imaginary Manchester County, Virginia, whose existence is reinforced with references to 19th-century census reports, pamphlets and other archival material - also concocted by Jones. In The Known World, he describes the novel's characters and the power relations of slavery in the most minute detail - as intricate a creation as his external life is spare. When he leaves something out, he has a good reason. In this tale of the South, Jones never reveals what crop the slaves were growing in the fields; he was too afraid of getting it wrong.