Frontlist | “The Prophets,” a Novel of Queer Love During Slavery, Burdened by History

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A long, long time ago, maybe twenty or so years ago, I told myself that even if you have one page about a person eating his lunch you should have a history in your head,” the author Edward P. Jones said in a 2004 interview in The New Yorker. He was discussing a short story he’d written, “Old Boys, Old Girls,” but the same could be said of “The Known World,” Jones’s début and only novel to date, which had just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Set in a fictional county in antebellum Virginia, “The Known World” is an epic of slavery told through an onslaught of the banal; though the book was marketed through its most sensational element—the character of Henry Townsend, an enslaved Black man who becomes a slave owner himself—its power lies in how it recounts the flurry of names, places, and interactions that constitute one node in a devastating American network.

Jones’s name doesn’t appear among the dozens of authors, artists, entertainers, and other luminaries—living and dead—called upon in the acknowledgments of “The Prophets,” the début novel by Robert Jones, Jr. (no relation to Edward), but I wondered, while reading it, whether Robert had thought of “The Known World” as he drafted his own book. Aside from sporadic scenes situated in the motherland of a far-gone past, “The Prophets,” like its Pulitzer-winning predecessor, meets the might of slavery’s unrepresentable facts with localness, a severe provincialism. Not unlike Henry Townsend, the pair of men at the center of the book—the young, enslaved lovers Samuel and Isaiah—are part of an ensemble of characters filling out the economy of a cotton plantation, where the story is set. Both novels travel back and forth through time, but they ultimately diverge, profoundly, in their narrative uses of history. For Edward, history is background, or better yet, subtext, imparted sparingly in service of the story, but mostly kept inside his head. In “The Prophets,” by contrast, the approach to history is the kitchen sink—no channelling of the past is too much for the purpose of parable. Ancestors of various kinds are beckoned forth to lend the weight of their influence, from the denizens of the plantation who populate the novel to the luminaries of African-American letters who inspired it.

I was primed to adore “The Prophets,” not only because of the considerable advance praise it had received (it was published on January 5th), or because of the rapturous blurbs from young literary stars that decorate its back cover, but also because of my steadfast faith in neo-slave narratives, which, at their best, take the archive as curiosity rather than gospel. Much of the book’s reception has lingered on two points in particular: the revelatory import of its same-sex love story, which pulls queer love from out of the hidden—or suppressed—depths of antebellum conjecture, and its Baldwinian, Morrisonian rhythms, by which, I think, people mean an assumed orality in Jones’s prose. I know enough about the process of selling a book to understand that authors are often expected to resign themselves to representations of their work that they neither asked for nor authorized—that readers see slavery and metaphor and slanted rhymes, and think that to speak the name Toni Morrison is an implacable expectation that Jones should not be asked to live up to. (Morrison herself, issued praise for Ta-Nehisi Coates that, I fear, rather hangs like an albatross about his neck, when she compared “Between the World and Me” to the might of Baldwin.) But, in the case of Jones, one can’t help feeling that his own self-fashioning, more than the language in the novel itself, has done some of the work. For more than a decade, Jones has been blogging under the name Son of Baldwin, inspired by Baldwin’s end-of-life prayer that his work someday be recovered among “the wreckage and rumble” of the world he left behind. Son of Baldwin, which has grown into something of a branded community—on Facebook, especially, where the Son of Baldwin page has more than a hundred and fifty thousand followers—facilitates discussions about sexuality and gender and disability that are often neglected by mainstream outlets. Like many Black authors of a certain age, Jones found that reading Baldwin and Morrison catalyzed his interest in the art of writing. They “are the bar that I reach for every time I write,” he said in a 2017 interview. The dedication page of “The Prophets” includes “Mother Morrison and Father Baldwin” in a list of blood relatives, the elders “whispering to me so that I, too, might share the testimony.”

When the novel begins, Samuel and Isaiah work and fuck and dream in a red-and-white barn situated at some distance from the Big House, and from the laboring of others in bondage at the Mississippi plantation, which is known as Empty. Samuel wants to run, but Isaiah wants to make the best of it; despite this irreconcilable difference, the two are quite alike, having grown into each other in a matter of some years. In the round-robin perspectives of other characters, we learn that Samuel is “the bigger one,” big in body and big in the face; Samuel broods where Isaiah smiles. To most people on the plantation, though, “Samuel and Isaiah had blended into one blue-black mass.” The Mistress and the overseer cannot tell you which is which. The Master’s son has his own, ultimately deviant, reasons for telling them apart, though, by the end of the story, this differentiation, too, falls away. Maggie, who works in the House, has christened the pair “The Two of Them.” In Jones’s writing, their thoughts slide together, and it becomes easy to forget, in the author’s closest of third persons, where one ends and the other begins: “Samuel turned to look at Isaiah, met his gentle stare with his own version. Isaiah smiled. He liked the way Samuel breathed with his mouth open.”

Source: New Yorker

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