Sunday, January 13, 2013

Societies distilled or imagined

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Garbriel Garcia Marquez, is strange, powerful, and melancholy. Not to be read when one is already feeling badly or disconnected from reality, it draws you into a  magical world of love, loss, and catastrophe. Magical moments flow smoothly within the narrative. The town seems driven by human emotions, but at the end, not so much has changed. It bothered me how characters’ futures could be written off in the space of a sentence, but learned to accept the book’s pace and not try challenge its proclamations.

The Known World, by Edward P. Jones, also tells the story of multiple generations and an entire society in a single volume. It focuses on a black slaveowner and his plantation in fictional county in Virginia. I was struck by some of the style similarities to One Hundred Years of Solitude, such as introducing a new member of the community or a child and then telling of that person’s fate. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, at the moment you read the line, you struggle to believe or understand the path that could lead to such an outcome, but by the time you get to the foreshadowed point in the story, the entire context has changed, so it’s still new or surprising even though you learned long ago what would happen. The Known World’s indications of the future, instead of being wrapped fully into the narrative, seem to show changes or continuities in the society beyond the period covered by the book.

A few lines that show Jones’ painful but beautiful phrasing:
“Henry had always said that he wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known. He did not understand that the kind of world he wanted to create was doomed before he had even spoken the first syllable of the word master.” 
This line seemed more critical of Henry to me the first time I read it. Upon reading it again, I liked the way that it seemed to reflect the voice of the book. While not exonerating bad actions, it also tries to show the context and how the actions came to be.
“So when I say he was a handsome man, he was indeed. Henry was, too, but he never got old enough to lose that boyish facade colored men have before they settle into being handsome and unafraid, before they learn that death is as near as a shadow and go about living their lives accordingly. When they learn that, they become more beautiful than even God could imagine.” 
“Mary, hearing Ophelia sing, had decided right then that she didn’t want heaven if it came without Ophelia. Mary asked Ophelia about coming with her and eating peaches and cream un the sunlight until Judgement Day and Ophelia shrugged her shoulders and said ‘That sounds fine. I ain’t got nothin better to do right at the moment. Ain’t got nothin to do til evenin time anyway.” 
Before picking up The Known World, I had greatly enjoyed Jones’ Lost in the City, a series of interwoven short stories set in Washington, D.C.  


  1. Magical realism doesn't quite do it for me. By the time I finished One Hundred Years of Solitude my eyes hurt from rolling them too much.

    On an unrelated note, I've nominated you for a Liebster award! See my most recent post: