In her book Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant argues that we become most aware of being in the present when the things we believe should fundamentally persist in the world stop doing so. Edward P. Jones’ The Known World offers that sense of being caught in a world in transition, with multiple characters scrabbling to hold onto their “known world” despite (or because of) signs that suggest what about it is unknown, or coming to be so.
You can see this in the novel’s opening sentence: “The evening his master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins.” (1) One way of reading this sentence is that it casts the master’s death as a non-event: the slave system trundles on regardless. But another reading is that, in light of the disturbance caused in Moses’ “known world” by his master’s death, he repeats his overseer routine as a means of maintaining his orientation to a world in which the master’s death threatens to become a world-changing event (but might not). See also Skiffington’s refusal of a “bigger, better” map/world to replace the one he knows, however distorted it might be.