The Known World feels like a book that took a long time to write. The writing proceeds at a slow but churning pace. Jones meticulously ties each character to one another, to the land, to the curious circumstances of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. We are taught in school that slavery was a black and white affair, but Jones takes great pains to describe a human landscape where such distinctions are blurry: the most powerful man in Manchester County, William Robbins, dotes upon the two children he has fathered with his slave, Philomena; Oden, the Indian, exaggerates his cruelty towards blacks to maintain his tenuous superiority; and Henry Townsend, the gifted young black man at the center of this novel, acquires a plantation full of slaves from which discord flows, imperceptibly at first. The lesson is the messiness of slavery made real by the vivid lives of each character. Over the course of the novel, Jones sketches out each character, from birth to death, using deft flashbacks and flash-forwards that are scattered throughout like crumbs and give the book a marvelous depth. In this sense, the book reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book ends before the Civil War begins, and so the triumph of good over evil is not allowed to mitigate the brutal picture of slavery that Jones paints. Perhaps because it was so assiduously researched, this novel feels like history and it feels like life. Here’s hoping that Jones’ next one doesn’t take ten years to write.
Diane Williams’ latest collection of stories, Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, is a slender volume, whose small width, girth, and abundant white space would lure even the most timid reader. Weary of long-term commitments? By all appearances, Williams’s book beckons and says enter. Come sit with stories that begin halfway down the page and run over to the next, and seldom stretch beyond that. The author greets the reader before the stories begin, not with a quote to demonstrate erudition, but rather with a signal that all’s clear: “Perfectly safe; go ahead.”
This is the first hint that something is off kilter. If you abide by the tropes of American horror film, this is the cue to shut the cover and run for the hills. But, of course, from a reader’s perspective, the implication that things may get hairy only heightens the intrigue. Williams’ book, like her stories, aren’t obvious. Had she written, “Danger ahead!” her point would be overstated. Instead we’re given the hint that we’re entering territory where the ground might unexpectedly shift, where anything might occur.
Williams’ stories are sly little creatures who thrive in domestic settings; they are fixated on food, fucks, illness, and death, and the peculiarities of social interaction. The characters who inhabit these stories often appear curiously, media res. Introductions include a woman admitting she’s fallen in love with her neighbor, a mother accusing her daughter of thinking herself a do-gooder, a crestfallen man searching for a better belt buckle, a woman seeking the services of a man with a habit of sharpening knives. And while these acts sound fairly insignificant when rattled off like this in a list, in Williams’ stories the significance of each action is anchored and amplified. That neighbor? Neither woman can get his penis to do anything. “Do-gooder” becomes a slur in the mother’s mouth. The man who sharpens knives? Despite his humility (about the superior state of his lawn), and his kindness (leaving Band-aids with the knives he services), he dies. With these contortions, Williams reveals the essential strangeness in the the everyday.
Getting one’s nails done or running into a recently divorced acquaintance at the grocery store provide windows that open to a larger world of human desire, disappointment, and misunderstanding. The recent divorcee is recognized with delay — “They had been the Crossticks!” — the narrator suddenly realizes, as if she’d know him in an instant, if he were with his wife. The encounters are estranged from their everyday backdrops, and this perspective sears through habituation. It’s a wake-up call to the way we accrue so many details that blunt our recognition of the peculiarities of existence. In life we often hit cruise control to make sure we arrive at to our next destination. This might make us more functional human beings, but it also dulls our perception.
We can’t escape eccentricity, but we can become habituated to it, which is one of Michael Martone’s points in his introductory essay to Not Normal, Illinois, a collection edited by Martone that features stories written by native midwesterners, including Rikki Ducornet, Laird Hunt, Ander Monson, Deb Olin Unferth, Steve Tomasula, and Diane Williams. How bizarre that the state of Illinois, and specifically a city named Normal, home to Illinois State University, has been such a hotbed of experimental and avant-garde fiction. Both The Dalkey Archive and FC2 presses have at some point called Normal home. David Foster Wallace taught at Illinois State, and former FC2 managing director Curtis White still does. Is this merely happenstance? Martone says no, and pinpoints this prolific outpouring as a distinctly regional reaction to the “normalcy” of midwestern culture. He states, “The midwesterners have been normal for so long that it seems normal that they are this way, and the details of normalcy, the construction of what is normal, becomes so, well, normal as to be a cunning transparent disguise. These stories are designed, then, to defamiliarize us to us. By design, they are made to make you see, really see, the things you take for granted all the time for the very first time again.”
Diane Williams is definitely an author who, as a good Russian Formalist might say, defamiliarizes. Her stories are distorted mirrors of domesticity, not because they skew the world but because they provide a magnified lens through which we can see what’s always been present but generally escapes notice. This happens quite literally, in the story “This Has to Be the Best.” The narrator goes to a sex shop, greets a familiar saleswoman, but the saleswoman exclaims, “I have never seen you before in my life!” The narrator dismisses this lack of recognition as a result of poor lighting. Does she truly not look herself? Does the saleswoman suffer from prosopagnosia? Is there some ulterior motive? We’re left to wonder. And yet, we’ve all been on one side of this kind of interaction, either failing to remember a face, or encountering an acquaintance who has no recollection of meeting us before.
Williams is also masterful at orchestrating exquisite contrasts, such as in the story “Glee.” If one forgets for a moment the popular television show, the title conjures good feeling, and begins: “We have a drink of coffee and a Danish and it has this, what we call — grandmother cough-up — a bright yellow filling. The project is to resurrect glee. This is the explicit reason I get on a bus and go to an area where I do this and have a black coffee.” It’s not joy, but glee that the narrator has lost and seeks to recapture, by way of coffee and a danish with custard like cough-up and conversation with this friend. Williams strings words in a way that thrills the ear. The syntactic play within the sentences shouldn’t be underestimated in providing their own form of readerly delight. Here the sentence riffs on the repetition of the hard “e” combined with the resonance of coffee and cough-up. And yet disgust is served alongside this happiness, a joyful meeting over grandmother’s cough-up?
Such specificity brings forth abstracted feelings. When the narrator in “Glee” later turns on the television, and watches a show where a suitor proposes marriage and is turned down, the narrator thinks, “when something momentous occurs, I am glad to say there is a sense of crisis.” The sense of catharsis received from watching someone else’s staged tragedy heightens a sense that something of significance is occurring even if this isn’t the case, and Williams captures this sentiment oh so succinctly. As readers we are twice removed, making this a meta-commentary on the role that stories play in our own lives.
Throughout Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, there’s a pervasive fear of disappearance and self-ablation; a character fears being forgotten, a daughter and husband disappear, and yet another character cancels her own appearance. We exit, however, with an awareness of Williams’ authorial wand waving over the dark linguistic matter as she acts as the conduit through which these words and images appear: “The star! The cross! The Square! A single sign shows the tendency. Can people avoid disaster? Yes. I leave my readers to draw their own conclusions.” Williams’ endings often leave the reader with more questions than conclusions, and yet it’s this openness that allows her stories to inhabit dimensions of experience far vaster than their petite packaging would suggest. Even without the cameo appearances by the character “Diane Williams,” it’s unlikely that anyone who’s attempted to tease apart a handful of Williams’ stories will forget her linguistic precision, the ways she whittles sentences into solid gems, or her wonderfully strange way of seeing.
As the war in Iraq commenced what seems like ages ago with the frenetic coverage of embedded reporters and the televised firefights, I remember looking forward to reading some of the books that would inevitably come out of this media frenzy. In the nearly two years since there have been many of these books, some good and some bad. I recently read a couple of them. Actually I listened to Naked in Baghdad by NPR correspondent Anne Garrels on the long drive from Chicago to New York. The audiobook is read by Garrels and her husband Vint Lawrence. Garrels’ strong, familiar voice added a lot to the experience. Though Garrels was one of just a handful of American journalists to stay in Baghdad during the run-up to war, the political and military machinations going on around her are just one element of the book. The meat of the book is devoted to her personal relationships with her fellow journalists, minders, drivers, and the myraid Iraqi officials who spent the regime’s final days collecting bribe money. As an inside look into the harrowing life of a war correspondant, the book is brilliant, filled with menacing bad guys and explosions that are way too close for comfort. But Garrels is at her absolute best as she delves into the backroom politics of the world of the macho foreign correspondant. She revels in the fact that American television left Baghdad before the war, leaving only an old school contingent of print reporters to cover the invasion from the capital. She pulls no puches as she berates CNN’s arrogance and Geraldo Rivera’s foolishness. Her demand is for professionalism over sensationalism.Most journalists were forced by uncertainties in Baghdad to cover the war by embedding with American units as they invaded Iraq. Rick Atkinson was one of these embedded journalists, and his book, In the Company of Soldiers tells the story of his time with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Aside from his duties with the Washington Post, Atkinson is also a military historian of some repute (his World War II book An Army at Dawn won a Pulitzer in 2003) and it shows. He is interested most in the tactics employed during the invasion and in the commanders who implemented them. Where Garrels delivers portraits of shady Iraqi bureaucrats and flamboyant European journalists, Atikinson’s narrative is tied to Major General David Petraeus, a no-nonesense military man. The 101st, and Atkinson along with them, saw their share of action during those early days, but much of what transpired during those first weeks feels like a footnote — or ancient history — compared to all that has happened since. The most interesting parts of the book are the most personal. Atkinson’s daily struggles against the harshness of the desert and the austerity of military life shine far more brightly than the methodical movements of the troops he travelled with. Both books take the US to task for fouling up the aftermath of the invasion, but where Garrels’ concerns seem to arise from her daily interactions with Iraqis, Atkinson’s epilogue seems hastily tacked on, an attempt to save the book from being made irrelevant by the nasty turn that this war has taken.RELATED: In October I met Anne Garrels, and I met Rick Atkinson in October 2003.
What is the source of Edward P. Jones’ magic? If you had asked me a month ago, I might have mentioned: plot, social importance, sweep. These were the Tolstoyan qualities I admired so much in 2003’s The Known World, surely one of the finest first novels published by an American in the last half century. “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” the first story in Jones’ new collection, Aunt Hagar’s Children seemed to confirm my intuitions, with its finely-etched rotogravure of African-American urbanization in the late 19th century. But, having just reached the end of the book, I am forced to reconsider. Some of Jones’ finest stories are as contemporary, elliptical, and personal as anything Alice Munro or my beloved Deborah Eisenberg has done. And, like Munro and Eisenberg, the man has taken the venerable short-story form and somehow made it his own. I mean he is a master. The source of his magic? A mystery. Well, no, that’s not quite accurate. What this book does share with The Known World is the Voice. That Edward P. Jones Omniscient Voice, detached yet curiously intimate, plainspoken, quiet, given to sudden, lurching glimpses forward and backward in time. Less James Earl Jones than Jeffrey Wright. The Voice wraps itself around characters, good guys, bad guys, men, women, and children, and loves those characters, and makes them live.Wyatt Mason has pointed out, in Harper’s, the way the characters in All Aunt Hagar’s Children gesture back to Jones’ first collection, Lost in the City (though one need not have read one to enjoy the other). They are grandchildren, cousins, neighbors of those characters; sometimes they are even the same characters. In lesser hands, this pattern could easily decay into a schematic, but Jones uses these connections as keyholes into his characters’ souls. For him, history is destiny.Take “Old Boys, Old Girls,” for example. Here Caesar Matthews, of the earlier story “Young Lions,” has landed in prison (where he was headed when last we saw him). Jones’ depiction of the social dynamics of prisons is as wrenching as it is understated. But Caesar’s past – his love life, his family – more than his experiences “on the yard,” shape his future. We are given the details in quick strokes:He was not insane, but he was three doors from it, which was how an old girlfriend, Yvonne Miller, would now and again playfully refer to his behavior. Who the fuck is this Antwoine bitch? Caesar sometimes thought during the trial. And where is Percy? It was only after the judge sentenced him to seven years in Lorton, D.C.’s prison in Virginia, that matters became somewhat clear again, and in those last moments before they took him away, he saw Antwoine spread out on the ground outside the Prime Property nightclub, blood spurting out of his chest like oil from a bountiful well.Note the characteristic way Jones stitches a single, anchoring present – the trial – to the past (a girlfriend, a murder) and the future (“those last moments before they took him away”) Note the sublime contrast between the fuzzy “somewhat clear” and the precise image of the bloody well. Every element of this passage will take on an added resonance in the story’s haunting denouement. Like “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” “Old Boys, Old Girls” is one of the best stories in the book. Also noteworthy are “Bad Neighbors,” “A Rich Man,” “Tapestry,” and “Common Law.” As with Lost in the City, we come to know the streets of Washington D.C. as if they were the streets of our own city and their residents as if they were our own neighbors.One senses that some of Jones’ mid-90s efforts have found their way into this collection, too, and they seem to be lumped together in the book’s middle section. “Resurrecting Methuselah,” “A Poor Guatemalan Dreams of Downtown Peru,” “Root Worker,” and “The Devil Swims Across the Anacostia River” find the author struggling with problems of diction, syntax, and plot we know he solved in “The Known World.” The latter three handle the supernatural less assuredly and vividly than Jones usually does, and traces of sentimentalism have not been entirely expunged from this quartet. Whether or not these stories are indeed products of Jones’ literary apprenticeship, the collection might have been just as strong without them.Still, it is difficult to find fault with All Aunt Hagar’s Children; at 400 pages, it is a massive and mature accomplishment. Claudia, the heroine of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, once chastised her community for confusing aggression with strength, license with freedom, politeness with compassion, comportment with virtue. Edward P. Jones’ omniscient narrators rarely render such judgments, but throughout All Aunt Hagar’s Children, we can feel him leading by example. This is writing that is not only beautiful, but strong, compassionate, good, and free. Which is what we mean when we use the term “literature” – or anyway, should be.