There’re novels that defy genre and so are put into a genre anyway. “Literary fiction" is what I see it called most often. These kinds of books succeed not because of plot or character, they have them and they work, but the book itself is more of a snapshot than a movie. No – they're more like a painting.
Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan is such a book. Jordan immerses the reader into a post World War Two rural Mississippi like an impressionistic painter burdened with a limited palette. Her colors are brown, mud brown, black, white, and grey. It’s a bleak picture, full of longing and injustice, prejudice and mud. Lots of mud. It’s a theme, you see. Mud. You’re caught in it, and it’s sucking at your boots and now you’re up to your knees in it. Mud.
I’m not going to give a whole reading of the book, but I was interested in why Jordan chose 1948 to set her book.
Mudbound is timeless. It could take place any time in the Antebellum South when blacks are “free” but not really. By placing it in 1948, Jordan gains two specific things that wouldn’t have been possible if the book took place, say, after World War One or The Spanish American War. First, it allowed the main African American character, Ronsel, to possess a new kind of self-respect earned as a tank commander during the war. World War Two was the first time African Americans were allowed to serve in the regular military. They were segregated, but they fought. Second, 1948 is near enough to our own time that we can apply our mores of behavior and justice without feeling unfair, at least that’s what I did.
The story is rife with the misogyny, bigotry and racism the South is so often associated with, but Jordan doesn’t try to do more with them than make them part of the picture. Jordan recognizes these as forces, but not as the villains of the story, which I think they are. Jordan paints a picture of inevitable injustice that my liberal heart just couldn't accept. Knowing that those attitudes existed in 1948 as they had in 1848 and might still in 2048 means that Mudbound, however beautiful, was bound to be a tragedy.
I was swept up in the style and narrative of Mudbound. I loved the intimacy of the changing narrative voices, the desperation of the more interesting characters and the strong sense of place. These things alone are worth the cost of admission. It was a great book but it left me feeling, well, muddy at the end. The best is made of a bad situation, but the bad situation is never rectified, identified or challenged as the real enemy. Instead, like the rain that causes the mud, these horrible attitudes are accepted as a facts of life. You just have to get used to them and slog on as best you can.
Charlie Chaplain said "life is tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long shot." Mudbound is an intimate close-up, a bleak painting, brown and muddy. It's so muddy in fact, that I wonder if we could get so far back as to get the long-shot that would make it comedy. If we did, we'd have to laugh at the players for dealing with the symptoms of the disease instead of the cause.