Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Imagining Character Inside the Beltway: Edward P. Jones and the 20th Anniversary of Lost in the City

By Patrick Thomas Henry

Washington, D.C., seldom comes to mind as one of the world’s literary centers, yet alone a city of neighborhoods. The District is a company town whose business is politics, a city-machine that fuels ambitions but tanks hubris-plagued careers. Literature and film capture this in depictions of the Nixon administration’s Watergate scandal, as in Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s All the President’s Men, the exposé’s film adaptation of the same name, and, most recently, Thomas Mallon’s novel Watergate.

Edward P. Jones, who writes about living inside the beltway, envisions Washington as a whitewashed “unfree world” that neglects its citizens, “black human beings [who] lived full and valued lives, lives that had all the messiness and grandness of white life in small, nowhere towns.” In his PEN/Hemingway Award winning debut collection, Lost in the City, Jones removes the gauze from his readers’ eyes to reveal a vibrant Washington populated not with stuffed-suit politicians but with African Americans struggling in Washington’s neighborhoods. Jones has also authored the Pulitzer prize winning novel The Known World and the collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children. His fiction demonstrates the necessary role of the writer’s imagination in uncovering the stories that political narratives obscure.

Edward P. Jones reads "Marie," from
his collection Lost in the City
Jones read from Lost in the City at Politics and Prose Bookstore, near the intersection of Connecticut and Nebraska Avenues, on Oct. 20 to celebrate the release of the collection’s twentieth anniversary edition, which includes an introduction by the author and the story “A Rich Man,” originally collected in All Aunt Hagar’s Children. To launch the event, David Cohen—whose wife Carla Cohen was a founding owner of the store—introduced Jones and traced the author's connection to Politics and Prose back to the initial 1992 publication of Lost in the City, for which the bookstore hosted a reading. Describing Jones’s fiction as “stories of the imagination,” Cohen likened Lost in the City to James Joyce’s Dubliners, a debt Jones acknowledges in the new edition’s introduction.

In that introduction, Jones writes that his characters, while products of his imagination, inhabit the real geography of his native Washington: “But all the streets and avenues and roads those characters and the other people in this book go up and down are real, or were real once upon a time, when I knew them as a boy.” Jones’s Washingtonians, invisible to the capital’s powerbrokers, navigate their city to gather safeguards against the common dangers of everyday life. This theme manifests itself when the protagonists of “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” and “Marie” accumulate objects to cobble together a sense of security: pigeons for Betsy Ann in “Girl” and everything from Social Security letters to audiocassettes of her oral history to a serrated knife for the title character in “Marie.”

Jones hardly endorses the pervasive myth of America as the land of opportunity. Instead, his writing reveals the complexity of his characters and encourages us to empathize with plights like Betsy Ann’s and Marie’s. This vision infused Mr. Jones’s reading style for “Marie”; he delivered the story in soft yet sonorous tones, absorbing his listeners into Marie’s sensibility, that of an octogenarian who lives and dies by the whims of her Social Security office.

After the reading, Jones fielded audience questions and comments, ranging from process queries to praise. Denny May, an instructor from Northern Virginia Community College, praised Lost in the City as “the one book that never fails to connect with students” because of its portrayals of characters and their hardships. This steered the conversation toward the people inhabiting Jones’s Washington. Pressed to speak on multiple points of view in a single short story, Jones demurred and emphasized the role of imagination in writing fiction. For Jones, fiction speaks to the emotions and values of its characters. As such, the writer’s task is straightforward: Tell the story however it needs to be told. “You just have a mission, a task” Jones said on storytelling, “and you go at it, using whatever tools you have available to you.”

The writer’s imagination is the chest containing these tools, and careful application of a writer’s skills is essential to developing character. Jones stated during the question-and-answer session that imagination allows writers to conceive the full scope of a story before penning a single word. But this isn’t an argument for inorganic plotting: For Jones, the end of a story is the result of a character’s ambitions. He rhetorically asked the audience, “If there’s no outcome, then why begin to write this story?”

If character is at every story’s core, then Jones’s question implies that character and plot must be intertwined, and setting stages the story’s conflict. His status as a D.C. writer, then, extends from his decision to explore the human condition in the nation’s capital. Nonetheless, Jones said, “I don’t see myself as a D.C. writer, but if that’s what I am, I won’t run away from it.” His use of D.C. is certainly a merit to his work, as it alerts us to neglected communities, the uncertainty of dreams, and lurking losses—factors in Jones’s fiction that resonate for readers discovering themselves lost amid the vitriol endemic to American politics.

Patrick Thomas Henry, a PhD candidate at George Washington University and a graduate of the Rutgers-Newark Writing program, occasionally reports on literary events for The Story Prize.