Edward P. Jones’s Carefully Quantified Literary World

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In “Marie,” the final story in “Lost in the City,” Marie Delaveaux Wilson, a widow living in an apartment at 12th and M, finds herself ensnared in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, summoned by “the federal government people” to a meeting with a Social Security official who is never available to see her. “Given the nature of life — particularly the questions asked by the Social Security people — she always took more than they might ask for — her birth certificate, her husband’s death certificate, doctors’ letters.” Receipts for her existence.

In the face of this indignity, Jones allows Marie a small gesture of rebellion: She slaps the face of an inconsiderate receptionist named Vernelle. But the story isn’t primarily about oppression and defiance. It’s more about the way certain dramatic moments occur in the flow of time and consciousness that defines who a person is. The episodes at the Social Security office (at 21st and M, Northwest) are threaded through other memories and encounters, including a series of interviews conducted by a Howard University student named George Carter as part of an oral history project. Marie is willing to share reminiscences of her arrival in D.C. (where her mother had thought “God and his people” must live), and the reader samples some excerpts, but in the end she stashes the tapes in a drawer, “away from the things she needed to get her hands on regularly,” and resolves never to listen again.

Her biography is thus consigned to a kind of epistemological limbo, recorded but not entirely known. And this kind of half-light — the intuition that the whole story can only be grasped through the flickers and shadows cast off by the facts — is part of the atmosphere of Jones’s world. There is always more to be discovered within its boundaries. Read a few chapters of either collection and you will become aware of a distinctive chronological rhythm, a way of pulling time forward, backward and sideways, slowing it down and speeding it up.

Jones comes close to inventing new verb tenses. “One day, you will see that Tennessee Creek again for the first time,” a woman writes in a letter to a child she has recently met. “And I will see the house again for the first time.” The beginning of “Tapestry,” the closing story in “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” offers a vivid, richly detailed narrative of events that didn’t actually happen, but that would have happened “were it not for the sleeping car porter.” It’s not until four pages in that we learn the porter’s name, and at the end, after he has married Anne Perry (who might otherwise have married Lucas Turner, but definitely not Ned Murray), Jones shifts back to a slightly different subjunctive mood, as Anne pictures what would happen if she were to abandon her new husband.

His name, by the way, is George Carter, just like the young man in “Marie,” who might be one of the 21 grandchildren or even 12 great-grandchildren noted in the final passage of “Tapestry.” That seems likely. The temporal loops and echoes don’t just happen within the stories, but between them. We are frequently meeting people again for the first time. Reading the part of “Marie” in which she deters a would-be mugger by stabbing his hand with a seven-inch knife she keeps in her coat pocket casts you back to “Young Lions,” the fourth story in “Lost in the City,” whose main character is Marie’s assailant, Caesar Matthews. He will return in “Old Boys and Old Girls,” the fourth story of “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” which follows him through a stretch in prison.

The links and knots are too many to enumerate, and I’m by no means sure that, after multiple readings, I have accounted for all of them. “Lost in the City” begins with a delicate vignette called “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons.” The man who gave the girl those pigeons is a barber named Miles Patterson whose remarkable origins are related in the first story of “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” called “In the Blink of God’s Eye.” Georgia, the survivor of domestic abuse in “Common Law,” figures in the title story of “Lost in the City.” Those are, by the way, the eighth stories in their respective books.

After a while, you learn to pay close attention to the names and addresses. Have I met this person before? Will I be seeing her again? Didn’t she and that other family live on the same block of H Street? Was it at the same time? Did they know each other? These aren’t just puzzles to solve, but invitations to reread, to retrace your steps until you feel as if those people know you too.

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