The New Canon
The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews The
Known World
 by Edward P.
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The Known World
by Edward P. Jones

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Why do many historical novels, especially the zealous and
ambitious ones, strike me as being so clumsy? I would suggest that
the problem arises from an almost intrinsic inflexibility of the
novel—which has always been a narrative form built around the
exploits and perspectives of individuals—
when it tries to addresses causes and results
of a social and collective nature. For better
or worse, storytelling coexists comfortably
with heroes and villains, and gets lost when
it tries to portray a Zeitgeist or even what
demographers quaintly call a “cohort group.”

This is why the battle scenes in Homer
always get reduced to a series of conflicts
between two people. Even the great epic
poet nods, or rather gives up when faced
with the challenge of describing the reality
of the battlefield. Much rarer is the daring
War in Peace, in which Tolstoy comes
close to capturing the essence of large scale conflict—yet even in
this masterpiece, the novelist succeeds mostly because he openly
embraces the chaos of the confrontation, a confusion so pervasive
that even a Napoleon is incapable of grasping its true particulars.
Yes, it is all too revealing that the greatest war novel of all time
succeeds by admitting its inability to make sense of its subject

A novel such as Edward P. Jones’s
The Known World faces a
different, if related challenge. In focusing on the situation of
masters and slaves in the antebellum South, Jones is addressing a
subject that immediately forces us to grapple with issues of good
and evil. In other words, a historical novel of this sort is inevitably
a vehicle for reflection on moral values. Yet, given the
individualist tilt of this narrative form noted above, such a tale
must take on the guise of a tale of heroes and villains. Such novels
generally proceed by identifying the “good guys” and “bad guys” in
the opening chapters, and then moving them towards either a
happy or tragic ending.

Yet Jones refuses to play this game. Much of
The Known World
deals with the situation of blacks compromised by their social
setting, and becoming slave owners themselves, or serving as
overseers—essentially slave drivers who enforce and preserve the
same system of exploitation in which they themselves are victims.
Here the hero can turn out to be the villain, and Darth Vader doesn’
t always wear a scary mask to help you sort out the underlying

In short, the reader of this book encounters an unsettling degree
of moral ambiguity at almost every turn. Yes, there are a few
characters in this novel who are clearly evil, and others (not many)
who are working on the side of the angels, but more common are
folks who, in another place and time, might have led honorable,
decent lives, but in this corrupt environment find themselves
tainted with the general contagion. The evil seems to pervade the
atmosphere, like the relentless humidity of the Virginia counties
that are the setting for Jones’s story.

The novel as a narrative form is poorly equipped to deal with such
complexity because it wants instead to reduce evil to a personal
quality. In his elaborate recent novel
The Kindly Ones, Jonathan
Littell attempted to show how the Nazi system bureaucratized evil,
so that it resided in institutional structures that made a mockery of
individuals’ attempts to decide their own degree of culpability.
The most salient moral lesson one could derive from this type of
narrative was the famous Dostoevskian claim that “Everyone is
responsible for everyone and everything.”

Littell, for, his part tried to resurrect the ancient notion of destiny,
a sense that a sick social structure can lead ordinary people to do
terrible things. The fact that Littell's novel was savagely attack on
ethical grounds—almost staggering to consider, given the
resistance modern-day literary critics have to seeing storytelling
as a moral endeavor; remember how they reacted a generation ago
John Gardner’s attempt to promulgate that approach to reading
books?—tells you how unprepared readers are for an approach to
good and evil that does not clearly define these as personal
attributes. Mr. Littell was told by his American critics—but
interestingly enough,
not by his European reviewers, who lavished
praise on his book—that he should stick with the heroes and
villains, and not complicate our lives with a macro-level overview.

I suspect that many readers find Jones's
The Known World
equally unsettling, and for similar reasons. Few characters are able
to resist the institutionalized evil around them, and those that
attempt to do so will not survive until the end of the novel. On the
other hand, the most villainous people here are frequently
rewarded for their ruthlessness. And most difficult of all, at least
for the thoughtful reader, are those who try to navigate in the
middle. Fern Elston could pass for white, but is committed to a life
as a teacher in the African-American community, where she works
hard to educate the black youth, yet she becomes a slaveowner.
The free black man Henry Townsend also owns human property,
yet vows to be “a better master than any white man he had ever
known.” John Skiffington and his wife Winifred are opposed to
slavery, yet when a relative gives them a young black girl as a
wedding gift, they decide that raising her as if she is their daughter
is better than selling or freeing her. What verdict do we pass on
these individuals? Can we hand out guilt in gradations, or does it
resist parsing in this manner?

Jones adds still more layers of complexity and interpretation to
this multilayered story. He mixes in passages about later
researchers who are writing about the same period he is dealing
with in his novel. These appear, at first glance, to be intrusions
from the author’s research, but in fact they are also constructed
fictions.  Yet they effectively force the intrusion of one worldview
into the midst of another. The result is disruptive . . . and very

Jones also makes extensive use of flashbacks and anticipations. I
mentioned elsewhere that Richard Russo impresses me as the
smoothest contemporary novelist at integrating these time-
sequence shifts into his stories. Well, Jones is the exact opposite—
he goes out of his way to
avoid a smooth transition. Sometimes he
leaps ahead several decades within a paragraph, creating a change
in perspective so sudden and unanticipated that it instills a sense
of vertigo in the reader.

In truth, the changes Jones works are sometimes so extreme that
they border on implausible. When the future of a character is
foretold it is always something extravagantly good or terribly bad.
Sometimes it seems that the players in this drama either get a PhD
at Yale twenty years later or die in prison, but never anything in
between. Yet even here Jones resists expected resolutions, and the
later successes or failures of individuals rarely appear connected
to their native talents and inclinations as presented at the starting-

One of my big gripes with contemporary storytelling is its
increasing reliance on static characters who never evolve but
remain true to type—indeed, they are only a step above being a
symbol—and then play predictable roles in a narrative that moves
towards an equally predictable conclusion. This has always been
true of stories that are presented on television dramas, and
increasingly has been true of motion pictures. But now even the
literary novel buys into this concept. The motives for this
flattening of the narrative are many—sometimes they are altruistic
(“this book is for a good cause”) and sometimes they are
mercenary (“this book will make a lot of money”). But the end
result is the same: a book that tells you what to think rather than
forces you to think.

But that is not the case with this brilliant, provocative novel.
There are deep moral lessons here, but they aren’t pre-digested for
the reader. As a result, few contemporary novels are better suited
for a classroom discussion than
The Known World. But even if
you have left the classroom behind (or replaced it with a different
kind of schooling), this is a novel that should be part of your
continuing education.
The New Canon

Home Page

Gabriel García Márquez:
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Cormac McCarthy:
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Philip Roth:
American Pastoral

Jonathan Lethem:
The Fortress of S0litude

Haruki Murakami:
Kafka on the Shore

Edward P. Jones:
The Known  World

Ian McEwan:

Michael Chabon:
The Amazing Adventures of
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Philip Roth:
The Human Stain

Mario Vargas Llosa:
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Marilynne Robinson:

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Umberto Eco:
Foucault's Pendulum

Cormac McCarthy:
The Road

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The Pale King

J.K. Rowling:
Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone

Arundhati Roy:
The God of Small Things

Roberto Bolaño:
The Savage Detectives

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The New York Trilogy

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Out Stealing Horses

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Bel Canto

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The Famished Road

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Marisha Pessl:
Special Topics in Calamity

Jonathan Franzen:

Colm Tóibín:
The Master

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Tree of Smoke

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Empire Falls

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Martin Amis:
London Fields

Mark Haddon:
The Curious Incident of the
Dog in the Night-Time

John Banville:
The Sea

Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club

Jeffrey Eugenides:

Junot Diaz:
The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao

Aravind Adiga:
The White Tiger

Tim O'Brien:
The Things They Carried

Irvine Welsh

Tobias Wolff:
Old School

Tim Winton:

David Foster Wallace:

Oscar Hijuelos:
The Mambo Kings Play
Songs of Love

More to come

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