Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Known World

The Known World (2003) by Edward P. Jones is the best historical novel I have read in a long time, at least since I started this blog with 2666, although that novel is itself so different that I would need to go back farther to find something more comparable. After the first 10 pages or so, I was not expecting to enjoy it so much: in fact, at first I was a little bit bored and worried that it was going to turn into an example of the driest historical realism. But Jones turns that around quickly, first with a sharp satirical undercurrent that carries the first part of the novel, and increasingly by a depth of character accomplished by jumping back and forth to scenes across space and time.

The novel opens with the death of Henry Townsend, a black slave-owner in Virginia whose father bought himself and his family out of slavery only to see his son return as an oppressor in the same institution. Ultimately, the novel follows what happens in the wake of his death, but to get there it has to take long detours into history: to understand the events that unfold, you need not only Henry’s story, or the story of his wife Caldonia, who must take over the operation of the plantation, or Moses, the overseer who wants to take Henry’s place. Instead, you have to understand a whole population—other owners and their families, other free blacks, other slaves, the local sheriff and his deputies. In order to understand the changes in the present, you have to understand all the transformations, and failures to transform, that these people have endured.

A typical kind transformation in Jones’s novel is not for the good but rather shows how easily well-intentioned people can justify away their contributions to the harm of others—in the novel we have slavery, but the idea speaks just as well to the present. Henry’s turn to owning slaves against his parents’ wishes is only an obvious case—more disturbing and wrenching are the cases of Moses (the overseer) and Elias, a slave with an understandable resentment of Moses that, as his wife sees, could turn into something much worse. Another case is John Skiffington, a sheriff raised to believe slavery is wrong but who has no problem enforcing it and ultimately reasons away his ownership of a slave. His cousin, a slave owner who resents John’s rejection of slavery, gives John and his Pennsylvania wife Winifred (herself very much against slavery, but also easily compromised) a young slave girl as a wedding present: they justify to themselves that they can’t free the young Minerva because that would be rude and because they will just think of her as a daughter. In describing this situation, the novel offers one example of its occasional stinging satire:
Though everyone in the county saw Minerva the wedding present as their property, the Skiffingtons did not feel that they owned her, not in the way whites and a few blacks owned slaves. Minerva was not free, but only in the way a child in a family is not free. In fact, in Philadelphia years later, as she paid for all those posters with Minerva’s picture of them, Winifred Skiffington was to think only one thing—“I must get my daughter back. I must get my daughter back.”

Henry and later Moses both later, of course, think of themselves as slave owners “not in the way” of other, more harsh owners, but the novel constantly exposes the fraud in the idea that we are not contributing to a problem just because we are not as bad as others, and in the quote above the mockery of Winifred’s idea that feeling substitutes for reality is potent. A grim humor also comes in at times as Jones suggests how the kinds of historical documents we rely upon to know history (such as census roles) can be very deceptive and compromised: “facts” are always produced by people with a particular point of view, particular weaknesses, or particular limitations to their capacities.

In this milieu, real transformations for the better are rare and cherished, and Jones brings the good and bad together to create a complicated and beautiful portrait of a world short on redemption.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood’s follow-up to Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood (2009), does not have the suspense of the first, just because the initial drama that helped build the world is now very much in the background, but the second book builds on the first in illuminating ways. The book follows Toby and Ren, two members of a religious eco-group called God’s Gardeners, during that group’s rise and fall in the years leading up to the plague that wipes out humanity. Toby and Ren are the flip-side of Jimmy the Snowman from the first novel: whereas he (barely) stayed within the protective (in some ways) enclosures of the CorpSeCorps world, they have fallen out of that world into the more abandoned one beyond. The novel gives us two key things, then: a picture of a different part of the world Atwood has built, and also a different perspective on the events leading to the plague. Crake’s roll in engineering a post-apocalyptic world isn’t ignored, here, but the Gardeners reveal a certain amount of influence on him—and some of the more radical Gardener scientists whom Crake uses seem a little more aware of the way they have been used than he thought they were (at least as I remember the previous novel from last year’s reading, but maybe I’m forgetting something).

At some points early in the novel I worried that old characters might surface a little too much and make the novel seem a little too pandering to those following the trilogy, but that faded away quickly as I read on, and Jimmy’s appearance later in the novel is an obvious consequence of what we knew from O&C. The most confusing thing about the novel, at first, is the numbering of the years: because it is an apocalyptic event, you would think the flood would be year 1 (or year 0) in the Gardeners’ schema rather than basing their entire numbering system on the year they began as a group. However, it is easy to see how that would then require an awkward narrative labeling of scenes showing the past as “Before Flood (B.F.),” so it makes sense Atwood would design things the way she did. In all, this was a nice expansion that shares the strengths and weaknesses of the first book.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Are You My Mother?

Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? (2012) cannot help but be read against her memoir about her father, Fun Home, and Bechdel offers her own opportunities for putting the two projects up against one another within the text itself, but it may not always be in the best interest of the newer book. I don’t mean that the first book makes the latter one look bad by comparison, rather that it is easy to want Are You My Mother? to be about Bechdel’s mother as much as Fun Home was about her father. In fact, while her mother does play a major role, there is less of her here than there was of her father in the previous work, partially because Bechdel spends so much time thinking about the surrogate mothers she has looked for in her therapists and girlfriends. Where the earlier book seemed to be about a struggle to figure out who her father was, the newer book features more the struggle to figure out what she wants from her mother and what is fair to expect. The title comes from a children’s book about a baby bird looking for a mother it has never met and trying to make various other animals and objects its mother until it finds it real thing. Bechdel’s book is more a riff off this concept than a strict repetition—Bechdel already has the real thing, but the real thing isn’t quite what is wanted, leading to a search for the mother in a variety of other people.

She has better luck with the therapists than the girlfriends, and maybe this is why the psychoanalytic theory is the roughest part of this book: not because it is terribly difficult to understand but because Bechdel embraces it to the point that we get glimpses of its silliness along with its validity. But this is a rich graphic memoir that has opportunities for rereading and increased insight. Bechdel uses the graphic form expertly to repeat moments at different points in the text in order to show them in a different light, revealing how memory is framed by the context of remembering. Some of these events also appeared in Fun Home, which means these texts can enrich one another as well—not just be compared.