Metaphysical Parenting

James Wood

  • All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward P. Jones
    Harper Perennial, 399 pp, £7.99, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 00 724083 8

These days, God-like authorial omniscience is permitted only if God is a sweet ghost, the kind with whom the residents can peaceably coexist. This is especially true in most contemporary short stories, where the narrator may be wildly unreliable (first person) or reliably invisible (third person), but not wildly visible and reliable. Few younger contemporary writers risk the kind of biblical interference that Muriel Spark hazards, or that V.S. Naipaul practises in A House for Mr Biswas, in which the narrative eschatologically leaps ahead to inform us of how the characters will end their lives, or casually blinks away years at a time: ‘In all, Mr Biswas lived six years at The Chase, years so squashed by their own boredom and futility that they could be comprehended in one glance.’ Comprehended by whom?

Edward P. Jones is unfashionably interested in fate and endings, and likes to gaze at the wide horizons of his characters’ extinctions. His remarkable novel, The Known World (2003), owes something to The Mayor of Casterbridge: in it he broods knowingly, like Hardy, over the faces of his creations; and like The Mayor of Casterbridge, it engineers a highly ironic machinery of repetition and guarantee. It opens with a description of the dying days of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave who bought his own land in Virginia and now, scandalously, owns slaves himself. He always wanted to be a better master than his own. ‘He did not understand that the kind of world he wanted to create was doomed before he had ever spoken the first syllable of the word master.’ Henry’s father, also a freed slave, warned his son that his emulation of the white owner was like going back into Egypt once the pharaoh has let you go; Henry’s widow, Caldonia, must attempt to manage the impossible contradiction of her husband’s legacy. And above this is Jones, moving easily backwards and forwards: ‘It would be late that day, after Skiffington had come and gone, that anyone would notice Gloria and Clement were not about. They would never be seen again.’ In one interlude, he leaps over his antebellum timeline to create a fictional Canadian publisher and collector, who, in the 1870s and 1880s, comes across material he will later publish in a series of pamphlets entitled Curiosities and Oddities about Our Southern Neighbours, a favourite curiosity being the fact that

free Negroes . . . had owned other Negroes before the War between the States. The pamphlet on slave-owning Negroes went through ten printings . . . Five of them were in the Library of Congress in 1994 when the remaining two pamphlets were sold as part of a collection of black memorabilia owned by a black man in Cleveland, Ohio. That collection, upon the man’s death in 1994, sold for $1.7 million to an automobile manufacturer in Germany.

Seven pages of the pamphlet, Jones teasingly informs us, are devoted to Henry Townsend.

This kind of meddlesome visibility can be perilous: the ghost may be permitted to become a God but less tolerably a poltergeist. In novels, such finalising stock-taking may be praised as an ‘epic’ inflexibility (a word that rightly recurred in reviews of The Known World), but in short stories it can give the impression of a genre restless with its limited brevity. His new collection of stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, suggests that doomy prophesying is in danger of becoming a mannerism for Jones. No story here can move without its blow of fatality: ‘What . . . her husband did with the prostitute, he had not done with the mother of his child in nearly six months, and he would not do it ever again.’ ‘I was never to return to kindergarten.’ ‘Anita took little note of what the child was saying, but she would weeks later, halfway between Veterans Day and Thanksgiving.’ ‘He would be glad he had done this as he stumbled, hurt and confused, out of his sister’s car less than half a year later.’ This can seem not only manipulative of the characters but of our emotions, as in the story ‘Common Law’, which begins excellently: ‘Seven-year-old Amy Witherspoon, only child of Idabelle and Matthew Witherspoon, knew pretty Miss Georgia real well, pretty Miss Georgia with all her precious clothes and her precious shoes, but the girl didn’t know very much about the man who knocked Miss Georgia down the stairs in July 1955.’ A page later, a scene dramatises the first meeting between Miss Georgia, an attractive young woman already married three times, and Kenyon Morrison, the man who will knock her down the stairs only two weeks later. The two soon flirt. But Jones, blurting out Morrison’s criminal record like a wayward judge, can’t keep quiet about him: ‘He laughed and she laughed. The last woman Kenyon Morrison was boyfriend to was even now in the house of her childhood on East Capitol Street, N.E., recovering from a broken jaw and a dislocated eye socket.’

That this habit does not grate too much has to do with the easy breadth of Jones’s short stories, which could be called disappointed novellas, hovering as they do between twenty-five and forty or more pages in length. Jones likes to tell the story of a whole life, and to plant that life in a whole world. His new book offers the reader – or, certainly, the non-African-American reader – the old-fashioned opportunity to go prospecting in a relatively unfamiliar fictional land (unfamiliar not least because he often sets stories in the black communities of the 1950s and 1960s). As he did in his first collection, Lost in the City (1992), Jones here confidently lays bare street after street, family after family, marriage after marriage of his hometown, Washington DC. This is the city that received the first great migration of African Americans from the South, the fabled place ‘where, South Carolina old folks said, people threw away their dishes after every meal because it was cheaper to buy new ones.’

Most of the stories’ characters, like most of DC’s black citizens, inhabit the north-east and south-east of the city, but the stories themselves accept no confinements. ‘Old Boys, Old Girls’ concerns the hopeless life of Caesar Matthews, who is convicted of murder and sent to a tough prison in Lorton, Virginia, just outside DC. There, he is taught to bully and dominate; Jones’s depiction of prison life is full of calmly vicious detail, and his narrative voice mimics Caesar’s indifference:

Caesar himself had been a father for two years. A girl he had met at an F Street club in Northwest had told him he was the father of her son, and for a time he had believed her. Then the boy started growing big ears that Caesar thought didn’t belong to anyone in his family, and so after he had slapped the girl a few times a week before the child’s second birthday she confessed that the child belonged to ‘my first love’.

Caesar gets a tattoo in prison – ‘Mother Forever’, on his left bicep – but it goes bad, and the infection almost kills him; in the end ‘there was not much left of the tattoo except an “o” and an “r”, which were so deformed they could never pass for English, and a few roses that looked more like red mud.’ After seven years he is released, and the story follows his shaky lunges at rehabilitation. His sister and brother, well off and well educated, try to get in touch with him, and are initially rebuffed. ‘The brother said: “I’ll admit to whatever I may have done to you. I will, Caesar. I will.” In fact, his brother had never done anything to him, and neither had his sister. The war had always been between Caesar and their father, but Caesar, over time, had come to see his siblings as the father’s allies.’ The story ends with Caesar standing on a street corner near his father’s house, tossing a coin to decide if he should go home.

Jones has a spacious conception of plot: his omniscient flash-forwards and roomy forms rub the edges off the conventional short story, with its turns and epiphanies and faked ignorance; despite the prescient presence of the narrator, it feels oddly as though Jones is doing nothing more than artlessly lifting a roof off life. The contradiction is hard to account for. Jones is unafraid of simplicity, so his authorial knowingness comes across less as postmodern self-consciousness than as a proper metaphysical parenting of his characters. The stories are at once intensely controlled and loosely digressive, at once focused and a little awkward: Jones’s favourite mode is to centre his narrative on one character and then let memory and consciousness have their wayward reign. ‘Adam Robinson Acquires Grandparents and a Little Sister’ begins like this: ‘After the cab turned off East Capitol onto 8th Street, Noah Robinson saw further evidence that trees were disappearing from Washington.’ The next two pages comfortably wander over Noah’s memories as he watches his city from the cab. He recalls first arriving in Washington at the age of seven (that number again) and he remembers his schoolteacher, Mrs Waters, who told them how lucky they were to have trees in the city. He has been married for 45 years, and once committed adultery. The trees in the street make him think of that affair:

The apartment of the woman with whom he had committed adultery was in a building that had oaks in the backyard, and once, lying with her, he had heard acorns falling and mistaken them for footsteps. And he had stayed away from the woman for weeks. His son had appreciated the trees of Washington, but his girls had found more joy in rosebushes and Queen Anne’s lace, and even goldenrod, perhaps because they didn’t have to climb to admire the blossoms. His son loved to climb trees and call down to his father: ‘Watch me!’ When people died, Noah Robinson’s people dreamed of them, and so far there had been no dreams about his son, the baby of the family. His son might yet be alive.

And so the story, following Noah’s drifting thought, slowly wheels round to its plot crux, Noah’s missing son.

There is a nice tension, then, between the looseness of this kind of storytelling and the certainty, the crisp fatalism, of the author’s prophetic knowledge. Jones uses this tension to make theological sparks. Several of the stories push up against the felt tyranny of a God who is supposed to be watching everything, and who knows all that will pass; the very raggedness of the characters’ lives must surely then be a kind of reproach to this Creator’s divine handiwork, rather like a loose hem. One of Caesar Matthews’s jailmates, Tony Cathedral, launches an old complaint: ‘What we need is a new God. Somebody who knows what the fuck he’s doing . . . God was out of his fuckin mind that week. Six wasted days, cept for the human part and some of the animals. And then partyin on the seventh day like he done us a big favour. The nerve of that motherfucker.’ The man who exempts himself from this lament – ‘cept for the human part’ – is a convicted murderer. And then there is ‘Resurrecting Methuselah’, in which an army sergeant, stationed in Okinawa, learns that he has cancer. He returns to Washington to die. His wife, Anita, alienated from him, is ‘already on her way to not being his wife’. She is embedded in her own more pressing domestic life, and one of her concerns is that their nine-year-old daughter, Bethany, is being religiously indoctrinated at school by her teacher, Methuselah Harrington, a reformed ‘scoundrel’ who ‘knew well what religion had done for him and for his own children, and . . . was determined that every black child he had any influence on would know that salvation as well.’ Methuselah Harrington hangs a poster of his long-lived namesake on the wall, and tells the children that, as Bethany reports to her mother, ‘we could all live for ever as long as we first accepted Jesus. He said we could resurrect what was in that other Methuselah. He said we could be better than the other Methuselah. He was only nine hundred years old, but we could live as long as we wanted.’ Mr Methuselah asks his charges to find out how old their grandparents were when they died, ‘and if they’re alive now, how old they are.’ Bethany infers from Mr Methuselah’s sermons on Christian longevity that her dead grandmother, Mama Channing, ‘didn’t accept Jesus’. Meanwhile, Bethany’s father, who was first seen, at the start of the story, having sex with a Japanese prostitute, is dying his secular death in the veterans’ hospital.

It is not only Jones’s omniscience that has a tartly summary quality. His sentences can compact a great deal of detailed social information into beautifully ironic parcels: ‘They took the stairs, because the elevators refused to go down when there were people in them.’ A family is described as one who ‘stayed near the bottom of the middle class, a few paychecks from the lower class in which the parents had been raised and which they had thought they would not have to see again.’ In ‘Common Law’, Cornelia is described as ‘a religious woman whose one dream was to see the Holy Land before she died. Her daughter had promised her that she would become a doctor and make enough money to take her there.’ The last page of the story informs us, in full omniscient mode, that Cornelia’s daughter ‘would not be a doctor but . . . would make more money than all her ancestors put together, all of them, all the way back to Eve’. There is a sense here, as in Jones’s previous work, of a controlled ironic rage, sharpening itself on the asymmetries and injustices of racism. At times, this is comic, as in this description of the police car summoned after Kenyon knocks Georgia down the stairs:

An hour later, the police came, the white one staying outside in the squad car reading the newspaper with a giant magnifying glass while the Negro went into Idabelle’s. The policeman listened to the children, then went down the street to talk with Kenyon while the white man drove the car down the few doors. After the Negro policeman finished, he came back, walked into the wrong house, then found Idabelle’s, and the white policeman reversed the car and came back to where he had been reading the newspaper with the magnifying glass.

Other incidents are less amusing. ‘Spanish in the Morning’ introduces us to Sadie Cross and her husband, known as One-Eye Jack, because ‘his left eye had been shot out across the DC-Maryland line by a Prince George’s County policeman as Mr Jack innocently changed a flat tyre.’ Within two weeks of the shooting, Jones reports in a savagely flat tone, the policeman’s lawyer sent Mr Jack a letter ‘designed to head off anything legal Mr Jack might consider’:

The lawyer’s letter, with the law firm’s name embossed in gold letters across the first page . . . related how Mr Jack, kneeling on the ground as he fixed the tyre in Mitchelville, had in fact threatened the policeman’s life. Mr Jack had not only threatened the man’s life, the letter said, but the life of the policeman’s wife, at home asleep in her bed in Rockville . . . The policeman had no children but nevertheless Mr Jack had endangered them and all the policeman’s generations to come for hundreds of years, because if the policeman had been murdered by Mr Jack, none of those people would ever be born.

That little rise in register – ‘all the policeman’s generations to come’ – encodes the anger in the passage, and also demonstrates Jones’s skill with biblical cadence. (The book’s title refers to the Hagar who was the maidservant of Abram’s barren wife, Sarai, and who slept with Abram and bore his first son, Ishmael.) And there is a delicate frisson here, since the passage satirically employs Jones’s own method of ‘biblical’ flash-forward. Generally, the prose is finely adaptive, often following its characters’ speech in a loose free indirect style but also capable of swelling into solemnity. Jones’s habitual mode is a calm, ironic notation of awfulness. (The Known World has a hideously flat description of the punitive slicing off of ‘about a third’ of a slave’s ear.) Jones watches and quietly laments the way the world has thrown itself out of joint. Literally out of joint in the story ‘Adam Robinson Acquires Grandparents and a Little Sister’, in which Noah Robinson, thinking of his own lost son, reads a newspaper report about an eight-year-old boy who went missing. When the police refused to help, a group of former convicts staying at a halfway house went searching, and found the boy ‘in a little piece of woods with a man who was holding him under a blanket. “I ain’t doin nothin,” the man was reported to have said as one former convict pulled the boy free and another punched the man in the mouth, knocking his jaw far off track.’ The precision of that phrase ‘a little piece of woods’ instantly conveys the mournful, urban, tussocky patch on which this scene played out. And the idiomatic ‘knocking his jaw far off track’ is characteristic of the loyalty this collection retains for all its subjects, deserving or not.