Robert Jones, Jr.,’s début novel beckons forth ancestors of various kinds to lend the weight of their influence.Photograph by Alberto Vargas / RainRiver Images
“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.”
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The greatest threat to Samuel and Isaiah’s bond—which is something more primal, more necessary, than romantic love—is the expectation that the enslaved will propagate, and thus insure the plantation’s future. “The Prophets” isn’t plot-driven; rather, the various forces undermining the couple intensify and, eventually, combust. Amos, the quasi-patriarch of those in bondage, begs the Master, Paul, for the Word of God so as to “ensure docility was treasured over rebellion.” Amos is no great believer. He hopes, rather, that doing Paul the favor of insuring a tempered labor force might earn him the token of a marriage with Essie, an arrangement Paul might respect above his own sexual desires. But Amos’s efforts to attract a congregation shift focus once he catches on to The Two of Them. Though Paul is unaware of what happens in his barn at night, Amos launches a crusade on his master’s behalf, making a problem out of the two bucks who won’t be put out to stud. The others on the plantation, once indifferent to or even approving of the love between Samuel and Isaiah, now shun them in the name of the Lord; the errant preacher seems almost disappointed by the ease of the mission. Meanwhile, an enemy of another color has designs on the pair that turn out to be another, queered expression of colonial desire. The material effects of these interventions are devastating and clear, but the emotional toll is less so. Samuel and Isaiah’s intimacy somehow forecloses any substantive conversation between them, or at least any conflict: “A mutual sigh released them from having to continue the argument.”
Conversation is a problem throughout “The Prophets.” The novel’s characters tend to characterize their surroundings identically, with a special eye for apprehending the trauma soaked into every blade of grass, every ache, every object they encounter. Natural and farmland images abound, metaphors for violence and violent feelings. Sweat amplifies the scars of the oppressed. Birds laugh at their plight. Trees stand and watch the executions they enable. Lecherous man is a “turd” that may, at least, “fertilize the soil so something could grow.” Complexion, fastidiously accounted for throughout the novel, may be “a deep cavern without lamplight to guide” or “a midnight sky, but without any stars,” according to Adam (the enslaved son of Paul), whose own complexion—“a starry night without any sky”—would allow him to pass if not for the dead giveaway of his “thickness of lips.” Sex becomes chaste by way of metaphor—a disobedient (or too obedient) member, at a scene of impending sexual violence, “snaked” and “came to a rest . . . as if contemplating an escape route before daring to venture any farther and becoming lost.” The Big House “was built on top of bones,” we’re told. Puah, Samuel’s friend, hears them rattling all the way from the slave quarters; “this be a fucking burial place,” Maggie whispers.
The novel parades these brutal observations before us, for the sake of awe, I suppose. Jones wants to bestow gravitas on the enslaved condition, perhaps as a means of repair, of compensating for the elisions of historical records. But tones of transcendence and glory have a way of obstructing interiority, the lifeblood of the novel; they leave little gap between who someone is and what has been made of them. Characters in “The Prophets” speak to each other not in conversation but in aphorisms that attempt to communicate an ur-Black truth. “What time is it?” someone asks. The response: “What difference do it make? We close our eyes and then we open them. And here we are. Still here.” The narration delivers pointed lessons, sometimes with an implied second person to receive them: “Didn’t they understand that here, under Paul’s word, they were nobodies?” the narrator asks, interrupted by a line break. “Hold on.” Another break. “There were bodies. They were in bodies. They just had no authority over theirs.” Jones’s source material, perhaps from Malcolm X or Alex Haley’s “Roots,” surfaces in these passages like snagging bits of stray thread, creating an odd ventriloquistic effect. “The cow was always useful for something,” some voice says, loud, in Puah’s head. “Milk, if not labor. Labor, if not meat. Meat, if not milk. Rape.” I grew weary of all the pedagogues. The metaphor seems a bit shaky, besides.
This tendency is most pronounced when the book’s male duo recede and we hear from and about the women of Empty. Puah is sweet on Samuel and a little touched, daydreaming of “black-sand beaches” and many lovers. She has only just been initiated into the abuses of boys and men; “the shape of her body . . marked her as vulnerable from every direction, with danger lurking in the company of anybody.” Still, she resists the advice of Be Auntie, perhaps wary of the older woman’s envy or intent on navigating subjection in her own way. Be Auntie, the bilious, lusty, broken-off ego of the Beulah she once was, was “men’s rest stop and peace of mind,” the narrator states, and it is unclear, as usual, how far, if at all, we’ve drifted from a character’s perspective. “She was their cookhouse, flophouse, and outhouse.” Women and shit, in “The Prophets,” are never too long without each other. In one scene, Paul has intestinal distress, a condition that is implied to be a result of Maggie’s cooking. We watch her wipe his “muddy” ass and then, alongside Essie, clean feces off his shoe, a tableaux we’re expected to appreciate as a momentary reverse of power. (“Briefly, for just a blink, he could have sworn it was they who were standing,” Paul thinks. “And that it was he who was on his knees.”) But the scene, preoccupied with the graphics of human excrement, does not divulge the viscera of Paul’s humiliation, only the demeaning labors at hand. And, when female characters are together, there is no tenderness among them. We are given brief glimpses of women loving women—a woman named Sarah aches for Mary, now in her past; chapters set in the precolonial Kosongo territory follow a polygamous king who goes by she/her pronouns—but there is no room given to homosocial, cross-generational ties in Empty, however. Distinctions in age rather fall away in favor of gender’s chattel logic.
Readers who are inclined to come to writers such as Baldwin and Morrison with an objective—one, perhaps, not uninspired by events “out there”—may find themselves moved by “The Prophets,” as if discovering the humanity of another person were, in itself, a worthwhile epiphany. And yet, “The Prophets” is not for “them,” it claims. This brings me to the chorus of ancestors who periodically appear in the novel, in chapters with names such as “Genesis,” “Romans,” and “II Kings.” The chorus opens the novel with an ominous “You do not yet know us.” The “you,” it can be inferred, is the diaspora, “the children” of lost West African origins, and the novel’s trips to that Africa seem intent on conveying there was an “us” before there ever was a “them.” As one of those children, I felt hailed by Jones and the want of a recovered language to express a shared past. Jones relies on the old trick of flavoring English with a little indigeneity—“he and Kosii met as barely-walkers,” a Kosongo guardian recollects—which might be cringe-inducing if not for the sense of yearning behind it, the wish for a unifying Black vernacular (from the Latin verna, meaning a home-born slave). Despite the loss of certain old ways, certain sure histories, “The Prophets” is preoccupied with sifting the sands of time, searching for an authenticity that can’t be retrieved, at the expense of uncovering the connections between people. “One day someone will tell the story, but never today,” the chorus tells us. I’ll be waiting.
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