The Known World, Edward P. Jones’ gorgeously written novel, turns the world of race relations as we know it upside down. The lines that divide the races in his antebellum are not so much blurred as crooked, doglegged, and doubling back on each other. And race is only one vector: family, power, history. and love are also in play here. Jones’ refashioning of antebellum history is profoundly subversive and profoundly satisfying. In his telling, our nation’s story is one of contradictions and cruel ironies, halting progress and lost opportunities. I hope that someone, some day, will write a novel just as good about race relations in our current vexed era. If they do, I imagine they will conclude that Mr. Jones had it right all along.
Starting Lynne Tillman’s American Genius, A Comedy, I was led to assume by the confessional intimacy of the voice that this would be a story on a scale small enough to match the closeness its first-person narrator’s tone made me feel to her. But then I began to notice how many physical locations she was taking me to on a given page, or even in a typical supple and quicksilver sentence, and how many temporal locations, and how many of the novel’s vast range of themes and motifs she was advancing, and how many different — often contradictory — attitudes toward a given assertion she was adopting or testing out. Another way to describe this narrator’s propensity to make an assertion and then to iterate a number of alternative and mutually opposing points of view about it would be to say that the novel she inhabits, even at the level of a single sentence, is polyphonic, that its central voice contains many voices.
So, while tracking her protagonist’s mental and physical peregrinations in time and space to and from the mysterious retreat-like communal living space that is the novel’s core location, Tillman composes and arranges in syntactical harmony a great many people and places and things: mothers and fathers, dogs and cats, the Empire State Building, Eames chairs, textile mills, China and Poland, 1733 and 2006, John D. Rockefeller and Jean Genet, coumadin, lanoxin, chocolate pudding, farting, murder, the Revolution and World War II, shoes, bikes, cars, a lost brother, a City upon a Hill, worry that does not hinder exuberance or vice versa. In American Genius, a Comedy, Tillman becomes, in effect, a dozen Ellingtons conducting a monumental symphony played by an orchestra consisting of a single multifarious instrument.
I read Cloud Atlas with two contradictory impulses: first to let loose a yodel, dance a fandango, wrestle an alligator, seize strangers by the hair and hold them firmly until they, too, read this shockingly beautiful Matryoshka doll of a book; second, to pout alone in the darkness under my desk. My first reaction was as a dazzled reader who saw each movement of the book as David Mitchell one-upping himself with his genre-bending (historical, mystery, science fiction), his sublime prose, his broad and breathtaking ideas. The other was as a writer who was intimidated almost to petrification by the mere idea that such a book exists and was written by someone of my generation. It is hard not to make sweeping pronouncements after having lived this book, and, still under its spell three years after I read it, I would say: yes, yes, yes, this is the way novels should be written, with such electric ambition, with such exhilarating sweep.