Visible Men: The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr

on Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Like many avid readers, I spent much of 2020 in a slump, barely able to concentrate on anything even remotely demanding. Every now and then I hit upon a book that stoked the reading flame but those moments were few and far between. To that end, The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr was always going to be a litmus test of sorts - had I regained the presence of mind to commit to a 450-page, deeply literary book of big ideas with a large cast of characters, multiple time shifts and a complex storyline? That question, it turns out, is not easy to answer.

To get one thing out of the way first, I'll say this: while it may be a debut, The Prophets is, I'm quite convinced, a masterpiece. I'm not just throwing the term around. It's Toni Morrison/James Baldwin level masterpiece, with echoes of more contemporary greats like Colson Whitehead, and an added overlay of brilliantly-realised gay romance. Having said that, I couldn't quite give myself over to it - a fault that no doubt lies squarely with me and not the book.

The Prophets is historical fiction at its very best; a striking and fresh take on the slave narrative, the like of which I've not read before. At its heart lies the love story between Samuel and Isiah, two young slaves who work the cotton fields of the Elizabeth Plantation (or Empty, as it's known to the slaves). They find solace from the gruelling work and soul-crushing unfairness of their lives in one another's arms. Theirs is a raw, passionate kind of love, played out each night in the so-called Fucking Place. It sustains them, and brings us, as readers, a sense of respite from the relentless injustice heaped upon them. Robert Jones Jr is unflinching in his description of sex and yet, much like Garth Greenwell, it never seems gratuitous. Rather, it functions as a kind of lifeblood to the narrative itself; there is propulsive energy driving a sense of hope. The ultimate expression of otherwise unattainable freedom.

Samuel and Isiah's relationship is something of an open secret. Numerous people have seen them, and come to understand why they have yet to sire future generations of slaves, as is expected by the plantation's owner, Paul Halifax. Paul fancies himself a magnanimous owner; he aspires to treat his slaves better than his father did. But he is beholden to the prevailing mores and, really, any gestures toward decency are acts of self-delusion. Just like those before him, he rapes the women, resorts to extreme corporal punishment (albeit through proxies to keep his hands clean) and trades slaves he deems unproductive with little care for their established familial or communal bonds. He is thoroughly detestable but is not the catalyst for disater. That honour goes to Paul's son, Timothy, who learns of Samuel and Isiah's secret and sees in it a chance to satiate his own desires away from his parents' gaze. From the first time he invites Isiah to his room to sit for a portrait, a new sense of foreboding insinuates its way into an already very tense narrative. It will not end well. And it doesn't.

There are many things that set The Prophets apart from the pack. Robert Jones Jr writes achingly good prose. Every sentence radiates beauty, even when he is describing the most horrific events. He is also daring with form. The Prophets communes with spirits and ancestors as much as it exists in the historical present. There are voices, much like a greek chorus, that pipe up from time to time with etheral premonitions and commentary. Jones takes us to Africa in the time before centuries-old kingdoms are decimated by missionaries and slavers, where history informs our understanding of the deep bonds between those living on the plantation, not to mention a different perspective on sexuality and gender. Perhaps what stood out most to me was the generosity with which Jones writes and inhabits his characters. There are many, many people we get to know, and all seem important and necessary. Jones portrays them with depth, curiosity, humanity and a fullness I would usually expect to only be found in the central characters of a book, let alone one this big. He writes men well. He writes women well. Irrespective of any markers of identity, he writes as if he respects them as people with a story to tell. There are no easy moral signposts, either. Seemingly good people do bad things, and vice versa. Even viewed within its context, you will be challenged by much of what you read. Which isn't to say the book does not positively bristle with moral indignation and righteous anger. Jones has the fiery clarity of, well, a prophet. What he has to say is, often, incendiary, consuming injustice in the flames of his ire.

The Prophets may take as its waypoints aspects with which many readers will be familiar, but it builds on them in surprising and engaging ways. It is epic and ambitious, finely-wrought and devastating. It just might be one of the great American novels of the 21st century. If only I'd been in the headspace to properly appreciate it.


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