Robert Jones Jr.’s “The Prophets” – Horrific Story, Exquisite Story-Telling

Robert Jones Jr.’s debut novel “The Prophets” is one of the best books that I have read. It is not a perfect piece of writing. But, for me, it is a masterful piece of writing for a simple reason. It speaks to me. 

I could name many excellent books that I have read but where “The Prophets” leaps ahead of many of them in my estimation is the profound degree to which it drew me in personally at many levels – artistic, emotional, psychological, intellectual, and perhaps most of all, spiritual. I became engaged with the story and the writing so profoundly because, I think, it spoke to four issues that are in the forefront of my consciousness these days, specifically: 

  • Memory and the future; 
  • grief and suffering; 
  • the capacity for same-sex love in hostile environments; and 
  • a spiritual dimension to life that transcends time and our physical existence while simultaneously being grounded immanently, intrinsically, inherently in our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. 

So, my reaction to “The Prophets” is intensely personal and subjective. I’m responding to it through my current obsessions. 

Before exploring these four themes, let me comment on the writing style. I‘m sure it’s not to everyone’s tastes but it sure is to mine. Robert Jones Jr. writes with such a poetic, lyrical, and metaphorical style, it’s as if I’m listening to symphonic music throughout the entire reading process, music of many genres (some quite foreign to me) and of many varying intensities, rhythms, and techniques from quietly melodic to raucously cacophonous. Many of the chapters are instrumental solos, some are rapturous duets, a number are exquisite chamber ensembles, and a few are full-blown orchestral explosions. 

One of the ways in which this musical writing style manifests itself is the way that Jones seamlessly interweaves three levels of narrative: a description of the action; the characters’ emotional and psychological reactions; and a meta level that draws in connections from distant pasts and from spiritual dimensions beyond our traditional western rationalist understandings. Almost every paragraph Jones writes in “The Prophets” draws on all three components in such an organic manner that we experience it as a whole, unaware of these distinct levels until we step out of the narrative for a moment.  

Now to my themes.

  • Memory and the future:
    • In the chapter entitled “Maggie,” Jones writes: The pounding in her chest subsided and she scratched her cheek to stop from weeping. Was it memory or prophesy? She couldn’t tell. Sometimes, there was no difference. She held on to herself regardless and put past and future things as far away as they would let her – as though that mattered. Visions had the keys to the cage and would let themselves out whenever they pleased. This condition had to be lived with. There was no other way. (pg. 37)
    • This speaks to me because of my life experience over the past twenty years of the deaths of so many family members. I feel a calling, from wence I don’t understand, to preserve my memories of the lives of these deceased loved ones and of my relationships with them. But the memories are not just cognitive mementos to be pasted in a scrapbook of sorts. They have an on-going presence in my life. I interact with the memories, the painful and the joyful and the in-between. They have a lived reality in my life today. And there are patterns emerging out of this “blood memory” (to adopt a word that Jones uses) that colour not just the present but seem to extend into the future, scoping out possibilities yet unrealized, anticipating the unanticipatable. “The Prophets” in a wholly different context put into words for me what I experience as the on-going reality in my life of these loved ones who no longer exist in functioning corporeal bodies and who, I feel, will somehow continue to interact with me into an unknown future. 
  • grief and suffering –   so many examples in “The Prophets”:
    • the scars lined them the same way bark lined trees. But those weren’t the worst ones. The ones you couldn’t see: those were the ones that streaked the mind, squeezed the spirit, and left you standing outside in the rain, naked as at birth, demanding that the drops stop touching you. (pg. 60);
    • when Kossii in the bowels of the slave ship discovers that his lover and newly married bridegroom Elewa was dead: and the words couldn’t leave his lips. Stuck in the crevices of his mouth and tying his tongue. He wanted to scream, but a lump lodged itself in his throat and the air couldn’t flow. He coughed until the tears, finally, from somewhere, somehow, ran and the saliva too, leaked, and his face pulled itself into foolishness … ‘Disaster’, he thought. ‘A pure, plain, disaster.’ Not only because of what he had already lost but also because of what he would have to lose. (pg. 245-6)
    • I marvel at Jones’s capacity to describe in excruciating detail not only the physical realities of torture, pain, and suffering but also the psychological and emotional components that are often hidden from view.
  • the capacity for same-sex love in hostile environments:
    • Samuel and Isaiah were drawn to each other from the first moments when the child Isaiah, having been torn from his parents at a slave auction, arrives at the planation with a wagon load of other new slaves and Samuel, having been there already for a while, offers him water; (pg. 13)
    • And that connection grew: Isaiah watched as Samuel’s untrusting eyes fully embraced him. He saw himself there, in the gaze of the deepest shade of brown he had seen outside of dreams, warm and enjoyed. He opened his own eyes a bit more, inviting Samuel in so that he could feel the warmth was waiting for him, too. (pg. 18)
    • And in the last chapter entitled “Isaiah”:… the tip of Samuel’s trembling tongue on the edge of Isaiah’s impatient nipple. That was the thing to make the heads roll back and the face worship sky. That was the thing to unfurl itself, a delicate bloom holding on to the dew like joy. That was the thing to cause the many waters to rush toward the calm and therefore to harbour. Yes. That was the thing. (pg. 361)
    • And others could see it too, even their betrayer Amos: “…it was well known that Samuel and Isaiah inspired everything around them to dance: some old folk, the children, flies, the tips of tall grass … Amos covered his eyes because Isaiah and Samuel were bright and coated in a shining the likes of which he had never seen. A shame that he would have to be the one to smash it.” (pg. 76)  
    • Some may find Jones’s descriptions of the magic love emanating between Samuel and Isaiah to be too romantically depicted, using “romantic” here in its literary pejorative sense. But I don’t. I relish this writing. In part because I’ve experienced that “shining” in the past in contexts that sought to negate our love. And in part because I long to experience it again.  
  • a spiritual dimension to life that transcends time and our physical existence while simultaneously being grounded immanently, intrinsically, inherently in our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. 
    • I don’t know what I believe about life after death. “Believe” is the wrong term to use here. We don’t and can’t know in an empirical sense what follows death and so there’s nothing that we can say that we believe in in the same way that in these pandemic days we can say that “we believe in the science.” Figuring out what we think or feel about life after death is more a matter of faith. And my faith is in a pretty confused state these days. But I’m finding that that confusion is actually quite a fertile place to be and I’m enjoying it. The reason that I’m so immersed in these reflections is, in part, because of the writing that I’m doing called “A Tapestry of Dyings” where I’m chronicling and reflecting upon my journeys with seven family members as they’ve died. 
    • This kind of territory is the very ground that “The Prophets” traverses, at least as I read it:
      • As the spirits address the reader in “Judges”, the first chapter:
        • Forgive our laughter.
        • You thought you were the living and we were the dead.
        • Haha. (pg. 2)
      • Maggie to Samuel in the chapter called “Samuel”:
        • Maggie pointed outside, and Samuel saw a shadow flash.
        • “Uh huh, You seen it, too. I can tell by your eyes,” she said. “That mean you got it.”
        • Samuel was still looking outside but the shadow had already passed. “Got what?”
        • “The favor. It something that get passed down. Sometimes skips a generation, but you got it somehow…what I saying is there be a whole better place for you and Isaiah, maybe not somewhere, but sometime. Whether that particular time is in front or behind, I ain’t got no power to tell.” (pg. 302-3)
    • “The Prophets” is replete with instances where the characters, specifically the Black characters, are aware of further realities beyond their physical enslavement and encounter mystical personalities, signs, manifestations other than those tangibly around them. Some of them recognize this spiritual dimension to life and embrace it. Some of them try to fight it. The white characters, in Jones’s telling, are oblivious to it and, I think, for good reason. The white characters think that they are in control and exert that control on everything and everyone around them. They don’t realize that there is so much more going on around them than they’re aware of.
    • I have a sense that there is so much more going on around me than I am aware of. A spiritual dimension or dimensions beyond the physical. And I’ve gotten glimpses of that most intensely at the moments of death that I’ve witnessed. 
      • The light grew brighter and brighter and Samuel screamed.
      • “KAYODE!”
      • The tiny bits of light that were once Samuel, maybe still Samuel, swirled upward, into the night, with no regard for who or what they were leaving behind, blinking, twinkling. (pg. 368-9)

  So be it. 

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