Friday, May 24, 2013

Puzzle the Prof: The Voice of Edward P. Jones's Stories

In response to my “Puzzle the Prof” contest, Keith Hood writes that he would like to hear what I have to say about Edward P. Jones, noting that I cited Jones’s Aunt Hagar’s Children as one of my favorite collections of the twenty-first century so far and his story “Marie” as one of the 200 stories from Boccaccio to the twenty-first century that I most admire.  Keith quotes from Garth Risk Hallberg’s review of All Aunt Hagar’s Children about Jones’s “omniscient voice, detached yet curiously intimate, plainspoken, quiet,” adding that the voice “wraps itself around characters, good guys, bad guys, men, women, and children, and loves those characters, and makes them live."

Indeed, I have admired Jones’ stories since the publication in 1992 of his first collection Lost in the City.  Let me comment briefly on that first collection before taking a look at “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” the opening story of All Aunt Hagar’s Children.

Convinced that most readers had only a narrow idea of what Washington D.C. was like, because they were familiar with it only through novels that dealt with downtown power, and politics, Edward Jones has said that in his first book he wanted to create a collection of stories that, like James Joyce’s Dubliners focuses on ordinary people in various African American D.C. neighborhoods.  Lost In The City, published in 1992, was short listed for the National Book Award and won the PEN/Hemingway Award.

Jones has said that he spent the next 10 years thinking about a story of black ex-slaves, who became slaveholders themselves.  The result was The Known World, his first novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 and the Lannan Literary Award. The following year, Jones won the MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “genius award.” All Aunt Hagar's Children, a second collection of short stories, several of which featured characters introduced in Lost in the City, was published in 2006, and was short listed for the PEN/Hemingway Award.

Widely praised by reviewers and critics, Jones represents a new wave of African American writers who write about individuals rather than about race and about the personal rather than the political.

The fourteen stories in Lost in the City, patterned loosely after Joyce’s Dubliners, are about people of various ages who face challenges of growing up, surviving, and succeeding in African American neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. Some of the stories are brief lyrical pieces in which characters face loneliness and loss.  For example, “Lost in the City” is about Lydia Walsh who, while at a hotel with a man, receives a call that her mother has died in the hospital.  She does a line of coke and calls a cab, telling the driver to get her lost in the city so she can postpone accepting her mother’s death.

Strength of character in the face of disappointment and disillusionment is the motivating force of Jones’s stories. Typical of his proud and capable characters is the young mother in “The First Day,” a brief lyrical piece about a woman taking her daughter to her first day of school.  The story is told in first person by the child, who is learning things about her mother, for example that the higher up on the scale of respectability someone is, the less her mother will let them push her around. 

The strongest character in Jones’s collection is eighty-six year-old Marie Delaveaux, living alone on social security. When she is condescended to and ignored by a young employee at the social security office, she slaps the girl.  Two weeks late, a young university student comes to interview her for an oral history project.  When he sends her copies of the tapes, she plays them and then puts them away, saying she will never listen to them again, even though they recount a history of hardship and courage.

The central themes of Jones’s stories are dependant on the trials, challenges, and triumphs of his characters.  When Lost in the City was first published, many critics noticed immediately that although all the characters were African American, the stories did not focus directly on racial prejudice or adversity resulting directly from white oppression.  In fact, there are very few references to color in any of the stories.  Instead of being about characters suffering as a result of their race, the stories were about characters who just happened to be black, facing the problems of living with very little money in small neighborhoods in a large American city. 

This does not mean that the situations the characters confront have nothing to do with their color.  It does mean, however, that Jones writes stories that are not narrowly limited to issues of race.  If there is a central theme, it comes from a warning that an old man tells his five-year-old grandson:  “Don’t get lost in the city.”  This is repeated in a variation in another story when a father warns, “Never get lost in white folks’ neighborhood,” and echoed when the young woman in the title story tells a cab driver to get her “lost in the city.”  Finding one’s way in the city by identifying with one’s neighborhood is the driving force of many of Jones’s stories.

“All Aunt Hagar’s children” is a phrase Jones says that his mother often used to refer to black people.  He originally planned to use the phrase as the title of his novel, which he finally decided to call The Known World.  Hagar was the female servant of Sarah in the Old Testament, a kind of iconic mother figure for African-Americans. W. C. Handy once wrote a song called “Aunt Hager’s Blues.” You can hear Louis Armstrong play and sing it on YouTube.

“In the Blink of God’s Eye,” the opening story in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, may be a fairly representative example of the “voice” that Keith Fort refers to.  It’s also an example of how Jones echoes characters in his first collection by referring to them in the second collection.  A minor character, Miles Patterson, in “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” in Lost in the City shows up in “In the Blink of God’s Eye” as the baby that Ruth Patterson finds hanging from a tree in Washington, D. C. “So this was Washington,” the voice says, “where they hung babies in night trees.” 

The baby hanging in the tree may be an allusion to the famous 1930s song, “Strange Fruit,” written as a poem by a Jewish high school teacher after seeing a photo of two lynched African Americans, and then made famous as a song by Billie Holiday.

Darryl Pinckney, in his March 29, 2007 review of All Aunt Hagar’s Children in The New York Review of Books, says that Jones’ attitude toward his characters has much to do with what he calls “the gentle caressing tone” of the stories in his second collection.  Pinckney says that Jones is the “shepherd of his invented world; protective toward his flock, his people.” He calls Jones is an “historical lyricist,” using language to shield and elevate his characters.

Whether you call it “voice, style, or tone,” the magic of a writer’s language to create a certain musical rhythm is difficult to describe, even more difficult to account for how language can “elevate” characters.  The two central characters in “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” the young newlyweds, Ruth and Aubrey Patterson, are indeed described in something other than a realistic or naturalistic way, and the result of the lyrical, folklorish word choice and rhythm of the language does indeed make them seem characters in a traditional folklore tale rather than characters in a realistic story.

The story takes place in 1901, just after Ruth and Aubrey have gotten married and moved from Virginia to Washington, D.C.  It opens with Ruth “hearing” the old song of the night the way she did in Virginia and “ever mindful of the wolves, would take their knife and pistol and kiss Aubrey’s still-hairless white face and descend to the porch.” The verb “descend,” and the reference to wolves and the song of the night prepare the reader for Ruth’s seeing in the glow of a gaslight a “bundle suspended from the tree in the yard, hanging from the apple tree that hadn’t borne fruit in more than ten years.”  The appearance of the bundle is strange enough to make her fear something “terrible and canine” to burst from it and to create a supernatural aura around the experience:

 An invisible hand locked about her mouth and halted the cry she wanted to give the world.  A wind came up and played with her coat, her nightgown, tapped her ankles and hands, then went over and nudged the bundle so that it moved an inch or so to the left, an inch or so to the right.

 The simple device of repeating the phrase an inch of so to the left, an inch or so to the right adds to the sense of an otherworldly moment.  The ballad-like nature of the story is echoed throughout.  For example, when Ruth learns that Aubrey has decided to move to Washington, she does not want to leave her generations of family in Virginia, but knows she is a married woman pledged to her husband.  “And God had the baby in the tree and the story of the wolves in the roads waiting for her.”  In one of the few references to race in the story, the Voice situates the couple in the folklorish world of their heritage: 

They were the children of once-upon-a-time slaves, born into a kind of freedom, but they had traveled down through the wombs with what all their kind had been born with—the knowledge that God had promised next week to everyone but themselves.

However, as the book title reference to the Old Testament slave Hagar suggests, Jones locates their heritage even more primally in the Judeo-Christian folklore of the origins of human life itself.  The sermon the preacher gives after coming back from burying his mother emphasizes the storytelling rhythm at the heart of “”In the Blink of God’s Eye”:  “I’m next in that long death line that started with our Daddy Adam.  And with Mama Eve.  O Mama Eve, we forgive you for pickin that fruit and biting into it with not a care for all of us what was to come after you and face death.”

Because the plot of the story centers on the conflict between Ruth’s desire to keep the baby found in the tree and Aubrey’s desire to father a child of his own, the story must, in ballad fashion, end with a resolution to this conflict; Jones presents the resolution in the tone and rhythm of an otherworldly tale. 

Aubrey has gone to Virginia to bring Ruth back, but when he sees her chopping wood in the snow, he also sees the “grey smoke rising from the chimney with great energy, and it was, at last, the smoke, the fury and promise of it, the hope and exuberance of it, that took him back down to the horse.”  Aubrey’s decision to turn back and give up hope of reclaiming Ruth because of the smoke rising from the chimney is a device typical of fairytale rather than realistic narrative.  The metaphor “In his mind, Ruth’s husband shrugged” is based on something inchoate and intangible.  In the terms of the folktale, he is no longer Aubrey, but rather “Ruth’s husband.”  His trip back to Washington on a horse through the snow ends the story in fairytale fashion.  “The dank smell of the horse rose up and held fast like a stalled cloud before his face.  Ruth’s husband smiled and told the horse he forgave her.”

When Aubrey reaches the bridge across the Potomac, the story ends this way:

The horse stepped onto the bridge to Washington, her white breath shooting forward to become one with the white of the snow.  Ruth’s husband patted her neck. The top button on his coat came loose again and he rebuttoned it, thankful that he hand had not yet stiffened up.  His heart was pained, and it was pain enough to overwhelm a city of men.”

What Jones succeeds in doing in this story, and many of his other stories in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, is  transforming--by the Voice of the storyteller-- mere people in the world into characters in universal stories—not just individuals who live and die and are forgotten, but rather characters who embody the desires, wishes, dreams, and fears of all of us.

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