The Known World by Edward P. Jones

I noted that my first #20BooksofSummer20 review, of Real Life by Brandon Taylor, would likely be enhanced by a rereading of Mrs. Dalloway, a text that is alluded to from the very first line. The Known World immediately put me in mind of a another book too, and I even did some research this time! And reread the first chapter of said book! Don’t say I never did anything for you, gentle blog readers.

But after all my hard work, I think I’ve talked myself out of it. Let me explain…

This is sort of a backward connection. I convinced myself that Paul Beatty must have been influenced *by* The Known World when he wrote his satirical novel The Sellout, because both books are about Black people who own slaves. Both feature fathers who reject slavery, and sons who embrace it. Both fathers are killed by police.

(Not to mention that both books recently won major awards, the Pulitzer for Jones and the Booker for Beatty, but seem to have fallen off the radar since.)

But when I scoured interviews with Beatty and searched for articles where both their names appear, I found nothing to indicate that Beatty ever read this book, let alone was influenced by it.

The major difference in tone and style might’ve been a clue. The Known World is a serious historical novel. Jones counts authors like Gwendolyn Brooks, William Faulkner, and James Joyce as influences, and it shows. Set in 1850s Virginia, there’s a wide cast of characters, including enslaved and freed Black people, and white people of various classes, all circling around the formerly-enslaved plantation owner Henry Townsend. Jones uses a device that I love, what I call the “zoom out” (I noted this in War and Peace as well, is there a name for this?), where we learn a TON of detail about one character, and then suddenly zoom out to learn how they died, 50+ years later, or what their legacy was. It’s like getting a brief and sudden bird’s eye view of the scene. It’s also a relatively straightforward story, give or take a mystical storm or two.

The Sellout on the other hand… it’s satirical, fast-paced, funny, outrageous, and keeps you off kilter the whole time. And, it probably bears mentioning that the mostly-unnamed Black slaveowner is living in contemporary America…

Then there are the fathers. Henry’s father, a formerly-enslaved man who worked to free his family, is pulled over while driving (he’s “driving” a donkey-drawn wagon, but still) and sold back into slavery in a scene that is vicerally reminiscent of any number of high-profile police killings, and highlights the straight line between slave patrols and modern police forces. In The Sellout, the narrator’s father is also killed by police but, whereas Henry’s father is portrayed as a serious man, in The Sellout, the father is portrayed as… look, I don’t even know how to describe it. He uses his son to conduct experiements in race relations, and founds a society called the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals who want to eradicate racism by removing the n-word from Huckleberry Finn and “disinventing the watermelon,” and those are mild (and Googleable) examples.

And yes, both sons rebel against their fathers, and decide to embrace the structures that were built to hold them down. But honestly, what son doesn’t rebel against his father in literary fiction?

I still think these books are excellent companions. Doesn’t matter if Paul Beatty never read The Known World in his life. Seeing connections that aren’t there is side effect of being well read, right? Reach for The Known World when you want some serious and absorbing literary/historical fiction, and save The Sellout for when you’re ready to feel like you’re losing your mind, in a good way (you can probably appreciate why I never reviewed The Sellout, I do *not* have the words!)



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  2. Naomi

    Okay, well, I started out wanting to know what you thought of The Known World and ended with wanting to read The Sellout. I guess I could do both! The similarities you mention are striking – no wonder you thought one influenced the other. Despite lack of evidence, maybe you’re still right!

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