The Known Reader

Today as I sat for 8 hours getting my hair braided, I decided that it would be a wonderful time to read The Known World. About 110 pages later, I must say that I can’t understand what all the hype is about. According to Entertainment Weekly, “It is essential reading.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram said, “Once you start the book you are hooked. When you finally lay it down, you are not only informed about slave life in the antebellum South but also deeply moved. Consider this novel necessary reading.”

Um…no…I totally disagree.

You know, when I read books I’m interested in the development of the characters. I need a driving force, a little conflict, some dialogue–A PLOT! Unfortunately, if you’re introducing 30 characters on each page, it’s difficult for me to identify who’s important and what I should be looking forward to. If you’re bouncing back and forth between various decades and time periods, forcing me to re-read, or stare at a nearby wall in confusion, there’s a problem. When you feel it necessary to describe every person one character knows with detailed background information, there’s a problem. As a writer, I question whether Jones realized what was important to detail or what could have been left out. Even his editor should be questioned.

Then again, what do I really know? After all, this book is a national bestseller, but I’m guessing that while numerous people may have purchased the book, very few actually read it. That would be a very good guess. But critics labeling the book as “the best new work of American fiction to cross [their] desk in years” and comparing Jones to Toni Morrison is severly stretching the truth, again, in my opinion.

So based on my 100 page rule (which I only enforce from time to time), I am officially putting The Known World down. I refuse to read another page. A few of the reviewers on Amazon seem to sum up some of my same thoughts and feelings about the novel, so instead of writing any further on this ‘I wasn’t feeling it’ review, I’ve decided to simply post other reviews that I just so happen to agree with. I don’t even know what I’ll be reading next, but I do know that I’m really disappointed with this critically acclaimed book and I better not see Edward P. Jones on the streets. 😉

Me: (holding up book) Say man…you wrote this? Cause if so, we might need to talk. (pause) What? No, this ain’t about no autograph buddy!

The Other REAL Amazon Reviewers Said:

According to many reviewers, this was a great book, but personally I couldn’t get past past the first 100 pages. Moreover, no one else in our book club had any greater success in getting into this story. The main problem was that the author introduces us to far too many characters in the first few chapters and then has them constantly going backward and forward in time by decades. I found myself paging back repeatedly to try to figure out who the characters were.

Based on good reviews and an interesting subject, our book club selected this book last month. We are a group of college educated professionals — many with masters degrees — and to a person, we can’t fathom why this book received so many accolades. The author obviously spent a great deal of time researching the subject, but it appeared that he wanted to use every fact he found just for the sake of using it. The result was a confusing montage of disjointed storylines based on facts the author uncovered. Add shifting timelines and sentences that seemed to ramble on forever, and the result was this was the first book that no one in the book club finished reading. We decided that the author is probably a fine short story writer but lacking in the technique that makes a good novelist. This book was a disappointment to us.

I finished Chapter 1 and found that I had “met” dozens of characters and hop-scotched among several decades of parents and progeny. I should have made notes. No, I shouldn’t have. That’s not how I want to read fiction, no way, no how. A lot of “reviewers” like the book. I did not and didn’t start Chapter 2. The local library can have my copy.

First of all, I’ll admit I gave up after 100 pages, but I think that’s a fair trial. I suppose I see what Jones is trying to do with his incessant time traveling–show the historic and personal effects of slavery as an institutional network that traversed the “known world” across time and space. Or at least that’s what I think he’s trying to do. This may be an interesting and creative approach (the two stars are for effort), but extremely uninspiring and uninvolving–and very annoying–in its execution. Vonnegut did it better in “Slaughterhouse Five”. “The Known World” is yet another book that impresses critics and wins awards with its high-concept literary pyrotechnics, but has no story and no people that really capture one’s imagination. It has, one will excuse the expression, very little soul. The book left me cold. I’ll stick with Baldwin, Morrison, Wideman, Angelou, Walker, and–especially on the subject of slavery–Frederick Douglass.

….That said, this book was not only confusing for me politically, it was also confusing as a work of art. Some reviewers saw the meandering and numerous switchbacks of the book’s plot line as the height of creative interplay with artistic form, as for instance one might expect in a Miles Davis composition. However, for me it was just confusion that randomly lurched back and forth across two centuries for no discernable reasons. Equally perplexing for me is that after all of the rough going required to keep all of the characters and the subplots together across generations, there was no conclusion to speak of. The book just sort of petered out. In the end, I had to ask myself what was the point of the book? I am not sure I got it….

The book will now be placed on the bottom corner of my bookshelf. Let me know if you want to borrow it…trust that I won’t be concerned about whether you return it. I’m mad right now and I don’t know what I’m reading next. I’ll keep you posted.

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5 thoughts on “The Known Reader

  1. [So based on my 100 page rule (which I only enforce from time to time), I am officially putting The Known World down.]

    Don’t do it, Naysue! Stay with it. The narrative is intricate, I agree, but so poignant and subtle in its disclosure of inter- and intra-racial relationships born of that “peculiar institution”, shedding a small light, like the flame of a candle, on race relations today.

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  2. I read The Known World over two years ago when it first came out. I liked it but it didn’t have the lyricism of The Kite Runner which made me feel dizzy after I put it down.

    Rather I took Known World to be an allegory about unbridled capitalism in the same way that George Orwell’s Animal Farm is about the rise of Stalinism. What is the most valuable commodity that can be and has been exchanged on the ‘free’ market but a human being? The criticism is applicable to our era of globalization and the Washington consensus on the ability of the market to solve social ills.

    The protagonist is a brother who has bought into the system unquestioningly and excelled. But by doing this he has sowed the seeds of his own demise and is eventually caught in the undertow and illicitly sold into slavery himself at the end.

    Calvin on the other hand struggles to maintain cohesion with the mass of black folks despite being born into privilege. We also see how white skin provides false comfort to its owners.

    I’m sorry that you didn’t make it through to the end. The characters don’t pack the same amount of flesh and sinew as the cast from David Anthony Durham’s Pride of Carthage. Nor does Jones write lines of arresting beauty like Salman Rushdie. But he does roll up his sleeves and go raking through the muck that is our political economy and tell us the unvarnished truth about the triumphant way of American life.

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  3. Hmm…hate to admit it, but I feared as much about Edward J.’s The Known World. That’s too bad, especially since I’m still very much enjoying his All Aunt Hagar’s Children. I’m even thinking about picking up his Lost In The City collection next.

    Some authors are like that though. I will politely refrain from naming the author who is like that for me (smile), but I truly do love a lot of her work–her essay and short story collections in particular. I’ve even enjoyed some of her poetry. But I doubt if I’ll ever attempt another one of her novels. Of course, one should never say never…’cause you just never know (smile).

    Personally, when I reach for a work of fiction, a novel in particular, I’m looking to be entertained (if not skillfully transported into another world), more so than anything else. I don’t want a lecture, a sermon, a political speech, a date & fact-filled history lesson or an angry editorial. Weaving bits and pieces of the fore-mentioned into a story is fine, but when it’s too heavy-handed or over-bearing, it’s a huge turn-off.

    On the other hand, I’m not trying to read any women as hapless victim stories, formulaic romances or any gangsta, pimp, hustler or ho’ lit either. Increasingly and unfortunately that doesn’t really leave a whole lot in today’s “black book” marketplace.

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  4. Persistence – I’m just not feeling it. I refuse to give that book any more of my time. I will say that I saw Lost in the City at Half-Price Bookstore and was tempted to give the author another chance, but I decided to purchase something else instead. That book will have to be assigned before I touch it again.

    Submariner – While Jones does “roll up his sleeves and go raking through the muck” I feel as though he could have accomplished this effort in a better way. If his other books are what people say they are, then ONE DAY FAR AWAY I will give them a try. After only 100 pages, I just don’t think I was taking away from this novel what I should have.

    Lori – maybe the issue with The Known World is that Jones is a short story writer and his talent isn’t transferring over when he pens novels. I agree, when I pick up a novel I want to be entertained too. I don’t want to feel pressured to finish something just because I should.

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