Abutting the Unknown

When things we thought were permanent start to slip away, we have to decide whether we're willing to again be as helpless as babies.

June 11 th 2010
The Known Worldby Edward P. Jones. Amistad, 2003.

For a child, a very young child, anything in the world—anything that's here—can disappear. When a ball rolls behind a chair, it doesn't just pass out of view, but ceases to exist. The same for a mother's face in a game of peek-a-boo.

We are not born knowing the world. We have to learn it. It is not pre-established in our minds and we have to make maps and establish coordinates, feeling things and touching them, according to the theory of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, in order to come to know the world. We learn object permanence. We have to learn. We learn not to cross the road without looking both ways or to touch a stove when it's hot. We learn seasons and times, the lay of the land and what's safe, what's not.

But all that we know has edges; the known world everywhere abuts what we do not know, and so here, there's a choice.

There's a map on the wall of the sheriff's office in Edward P. Jones's novel, The Known World. It's eight feet by six feet, browned and yellow, a woodcut created three centuries before by a German who might have been a Russian who might have been a Jew: a map of the world. It hangs in the sheriff's jail in Jones's fictional Manchester County, Virginia, before the Civil War, even though the sheriff knows it's an outdated, inaccurate map. When he's offered a new map, a better one, he turns it down. "I'm happy with what I got," he says, and, after all, he assembled this world himself. "The map had come," the author writes, "in twelve parts, each weighing about three pounds, and [he] had had a time putting it together. He did it while Winifred and Minerva were away at Clara's, and when Winifred returned and told him she did not want it in her house, he had to dismantle it and reassemble it again in the jail."

This is a choice almost everyone faces in The Known World, the choice not of infants, who must construct a conception of things, but of adults, who see their constructions come apart.

This is something we all face. It's a reality of growing up, and growing older, that the world is more complicated than our understanding, and there are moments when we have to decide between the hubris of hanging on to our ideas and the humility of accepting some confusion, of admitting what we don't know. When things we thought were permanent start to slip away, we have to decide whether we're willing to again be as helpless as babies. Jones, who grew up poor in Washington D.C., has said that "when you move 18 times in 18 years, you learn that the world is forever shifting; you can't be certain of anything … once you leave your apartment, once you leave your home, then you can't predict anything. It's not your world; you can't control it."

The Known World was praised when it first came out in 2003, lauded by critics, award boards, and other writers, but it has since sunk out of sight. It's actually hard to find information about Jones, the 59-year-old author of one novel and two short story collections, excepting a few scattered reviews and a really good profile in the Washington Post. Even major bookstores have to special order his titles. Part of this might be that his books don't fit easily into lesson plans, and even if he is one of the best fiction writers to come out of Washington, D.C. and could easily be considered one of America's best living writers, his work is both experimental and traditional, and that's a difficult mix. It's difficult, too, to be almost thrown into an ethical and epistemological problem, and then asked, well? But this is the brilliance and the importance of The Known World.

The book starts with and is centered on the death of Henry Townsend, a free black man of thirty-one who owns thirty-three slaves. This actually did happen in history, sometimes with husbands even owning their wives, but it's the kind of historical footnote we rarely note, and it seems to have been ignored entirely in fiction. Normally, narratives of slavery in America treat slave owners as ugly villains, or at least deeply compromised people, and the slaves are subtly made nobler by their slavery, yearning for the goodness of freedom. But Jones presents an antebellum South where slavery has corrupted everyone. This aspect of slavery—where former slaves own slaves, where, as Townsend's mother says in the novel, men "go back into Egypt after God done took you outta there"—is strange, and startling. Even though we live in a world where we all know slavery is evil, we still find ourselves surprised at its power to corrupt. In the novel, Townsend's first two slaves are startled to find their master is a man who looks just like them, because it doesn't fit what they think they know. They have to figure out how they're going to respond to this new reality, and readers have to do the same thing.

Jones puts his readers in this same situation again with the way he structures his narrative, which isn't linear, but told from the point of view of a God who knows and tells the past and future in all directions. Jones will interrupt an account of a girl being given a doll to say what this has to do with the last words she said before she died. Mid-description, he will jump one hundred years into the future to mention the name of a street and how it was changed. He describes and tells the story of the whole fabric of the fictional community of the county, complete with tangents that take pages to tell, and we end up knowing everything and also, maybe more importantly, knowing how much we don't know.

There are plot lines in Jones's book that lead out of Manchester County, and there they fade off, unresolved, as if the author himself can only tell the story up to the border. He, and we, are in the same situation as the slave who runs away at the end of the novel, only to find he's lost as soon as he leaves his master's land, fleeing south instead of north, because while he knows everything about slavery—even the way the earth tastes at different times of the year—there's a line where his knowledge ends.

Jones presents us with a world, and does it in such a way that we get lost in the same way as the characters in the novel, and we have to ask ourselves, what will we do now? It's an ethics question, a religious question, the kind that can't be answered with more information or careful calculation. All of that is stripped away and there's only the decision. What will we do when we know we don't know? We have to respond to that question from somewhere inside, as if on instinct or as if the answer was foreordained, and we answer, almost, in the way we shift as we hear the question, answer as the question is formed. Jones doesn't just describe this dilemma, though, and say how some people answer. He puts the readers inside the problem.

And there, there are choices. To read this novel is to engage in an ethical event, to test one's response to losing the presumed permanence of the world. This novel deftly captures that human condition of coming, inevitably, face to face with our own limitations, our finitude. Jones repeatedly stages this moment of decision as character after character comes to face the cusp of the world that isn't known. In one scene, a white slave owner named Tilmon chooses to free all his slaves, and he's caught up in the religious fervour of it. His wife panics as he abandons himself to the freedom of not controlling his world, and she poisons him "before anything like that could happen. Arsenic pie. Arsenic coffee. Arsenic meat."

He doesn't know she's killing him, but he tries, with his last words, to convert her. "We must go before God," he explains to his wife, "with no more than what babies come into the world with."

This is the ultimate question of the novel, the question of how one responds to the knowledge of the edge of the unknown. No answer is easy, for the learned permanence of the world disappears and we have to leap with Edward P. Jones, and however we answer, that's how we go before God.


Daniel Silliman is an American writer and journalist doing graduate work in American Studies at the University of Tübingen in Tübingen, Germany. More of his writing can be read at www.danielsilliman.blogspot.com.