Book review

Although “The Prophets” is his debut novel, Robert Jones Jr. is no stranger to critical thinking in craft, criticism and analysis. Jones, and his stunner of a novel, embody what can only be called art.

Jones established the social media community Son of Baldwin in 2008, with the aim of “leading and participating in conversations that shed light on matters from a Black queer perspective.” “The Prophets” centers this perspective, building the world around it with a cornucopia of brilliant, beautiful sentences. The writing in “The Prophets” calls to mind Toni Morrison’s famous quote, “I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central … and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.”

The novel shifts and subverts the most common narratives of America’s foundational practice of enslavement and exploitation.

At its heart are Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved Black men who work and live together in the barn of Halifax plantation. In introducing the setting, Jones writes, “Perceptive folks called Halifax plantation by its rightful name: Empty. And there was no escape. Surrounded by dense, teeming wilderness … and treacherous waters where teeth, patient and eternal, waited beneath to sink themselves into the flesh, it was the perfect place to hoard captive peoples.”

This kind of lush language artistry characterizes the book from beginning to end, even as it nimbly changes perspective in every chapter. Through these perspective shifts, a multitude of characters come to life, from many of the other enslaved people on Empty, to the Halifax family, to ancestors on the African continent, to an omnipresent collective voice that seems to represent the current of life that pulses against the evils of imperialism and insatiable hunger for power that characterize white supremacy.

The barn functions as a kind of body that houses the light Samuel and Isaiah create together. The two young men are in love, but their love and everything it represents is transcendent. And it represents a lot, both to every character in the book and to the reader.

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In Jones’ deft hands, the pages of “The Prophets” seem to radiate with its warmth. Every character is drawn to “The Two of Them,” which leads to a plethora of consequences for everyone. The barn emits a kind of light when they are there together. Jones’ prose plays exquisitely with the notions of light and dark, exploding the false binary of these words, making light into dark and dark into light. He often does this while writing close to Samuel and Isaiah. In one scene, Samuel “stared at the heavens. Crowded, he thought, and wondered if, perhaps, the abundance was too much; if the weight of holding on was too heavy, and the night, being as tired as it was, might one day let go, and all the stars would come tumbling down, leaving only the darkness to stretch across everything.”

Abundance, time and memory are major chords in this operatic work, and serve as touchstones outside of the white-made world. Another such touchstone is a deeply queer, and therefore deeply nuanced, understanding of gender and sex. Gender is an imposed idea, a narrowing that the world of “The Prophets” rejects. Instead, it explores femininity, masculinity and both/neither without naming any of these things, but rather by feeling. “Girl is the beginning,” Jones writes. “Everything after is determined by soul.”

“The Prophets” imagines itself out of a world where whiteness is the master, despite the fact that it exists in the world whiteness constructed. At one point, the housemaid Maggie observes that white children “would be the same dreary, covetous creatures they were destined to be, a blight their humorless god encouraged.” The humorlessness of the white Christian God is a crucial point, and one that Jones elegantly infuses throughout the book. He indicts Christianity at the same time that he subverts it, framing the book as a kind of bible.

He does this not just on Empty, but also in the parallel story of the ancestors and their kidnapping and enslavement. The ancestors Jones writes are full of humor, and they are uninhibited by European notions of gender, sex, hierarchy and power. On Empty, Isaiah and Samuel embody the inheritance of their ancestral joy, while in contrast, toubab, or white people, “praised every daisy and then called every blackberry a stain. They drained the color from God’s face, gave it a dangle between its legs, and called it holy. Then, when they were done breaking things, they pointed at the sky and called the color of the universe itself a sin.” As the story layers itself and picks up to a devastating pace toward the end, it bursts forth in a crack of lightning and the reader is left aflame.

“The Prophets” is an astounding book, at once potent and universe-level expansive, a sky unto itself. With it — and with his work at Son of Baldwin — Jones establishes himself as a writer, thinker and creative force to watch.

Robert Jones Jr., Putnam, 400 pp., $27

Jones will discuss the novel at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 7, in a virtual event hosted by Elliott Bay Book Company. Zoom admission is free; admission plus a copy of “The Prophets” with a signed bookplate is $30. See elliottbaybook.com/events for details.

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