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  • From BELOVED to GOD HELP THE CHILD: Toni Morrison’s Busybody Daemon – A Review

    Toni Morrison
    Toni Morrison (b. 1931) was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993, after the publication of her sixth novel, JAZZ.

    At some point during the writing of Beloved (1987) a daemon gave Toni Morrison the following line: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” Only a pedant would see two sentences here. It is one, albeit a rarity, requiring a full stop after the third word to create the frisson after the eighth. “124 was spiteful.” Stop. Your pulse quickens. “Full of a baby’s venom.” Stop. Your stomach drops. A comma simply wouldn’t do. Together, these two phrases comprise a first line equaled for power in American fiction only by “Call me Ishmael.” The book stands solidly behind this opening sally and has been integral to Morrison’s rise to prominence among Melville’s descendants.

    Much of Beloved’s greatness inheres in it’s unabashed embrace of large themes. It’s point of departure is a catastrophe of classical concision: An escaped slave slays her infant to save it from re-capture. The baby refuses to accept this fate. The story, radiating both forward and backward from this event becomes, not an inditement of slavery – too banal a subject for an author of Morrison’s intelligence – but a tally of the awful cost of accepting freedom. No one dodges collection, and in the case of Sethe, the mother in question, the price is very nearly too high. The characters who live in the shadow of her tragedy go at their lives like figures leaping from Shakespeare, the Greek stage, or the Hebrew Scriptures. Denver, Sethe’s surviving daughter, deals by never setting foot outside the home, but in the end, like Miranda moored on Prospero’s island, she must discover a brave new world. Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, is like Moses, whose faith buoys the multitudes but fails her at the border of the Promised Land. Paul D., Sethe’s mid-life lover, shares with Jonah the inability to escape the imperative of redemption. While Sethe is no Medea, it is hard to ignore a family resemblance; both are mothers in extremis who commit infanticide. And what of Beloved, the slain, the ghost at the heart of this ghost story? She is both terrifying and fragile. She knows something of Electra’s furry at a mother’s betrayal, but behaves like a heartsick vampire, feeding desperately, and so sadly, on her mother’s “too thick” love. Ultimately, she is as empty as Narcissus, a shell animated by the only real haunting power in the novel – the past.

    One of the great first pages in American fiction

    Toni Morrison’s use of language has been called poetic, lyrical, baroque. These descriptors can be misleading as they often bring to mind a torqued, extended, or otherwise heightened syntax which, while not unknown to her, is not a defining trait. I think what readers who invoke these adjectives are responding to is not so much her sentence-by-sentence choices of language as her way of constructing a narrative. At her best, she is wonderfully oblique. Her reader may understand every word but have to ponder just what has been communicated. The result is not confusion, but suspense. Here is Sethe and Denver near the beginning of Beloved after trying, and failing, to reason with the ghost of the infant, as yet only a tantrum-prone shimmer:

    “For a baby she throws a powerful spell,” said Denver.

    “No more powerful than the way I loved her,” Sethe answered and there it was again. The welcoming cool of unchiseled headstones; the one she selected to lean against on tiptoe, her knees wide open as any grave. Pink as a fingernail it was, and sprinkled with glittering chips. Ten minutes, he said. You got ten minutes I’ll do it for free.

    Not to put too fine a point on punctuation, but notice the lack of a comma between “Sethe answered” and “and there it was again.” It is a move as subtle as a film director’s choice in the direction of a pan shot. What follows is a memory. At first we’re not sure of what, but that it doesn’t merit even a comma’s worth of separation from the present tells us that we are mid-stream in a torrent. We try to get our bearings. When we realize that Sethe traded sex with the stonecutter for the carving of the single word, “Beloved”, on the headstone of her infant, the fact that she took time to notice the fingernail pink and glitter of the stone against which she leaned raises our neck hairs. Significantly, the only mention of a grave in this passage is in a stark reversal of the usual implication of parted knees. And the cool of the headstone? It was welcoming? Here we go. For Morrison at her best, style is strategy.


    It is a strategy which has made Toni Morrison, at her best, among the most powerful writers in American literature. When she falls short of her best, she still fascinates, if only for the spotlight her misses shine on their own divergence from her hits. Her latest novel, God Help the Child, published in April this year, contains so many elements of her best work it’s like an account sheet of a legacy: Here is the turbulent past acting on the present; a protagonist at war with herself; sex, both destructive and healing; and, sure to delight, the incursion of the supernatural. Everything is set to become a dazzling Morrisonian feast. And by the time the reader comes to the last page – the ingredients have remained ingredients. The master chef, it seems, has lost the courage to cook.

    GOD HELP THE CHILD, Toni Morrison’s eleventh novel, was published in April of 2015.

    It is the story of a young woman in distress. Bride, born with skin as dark as genetically possible, finds her way through life by measuring the response her striking appearance elicits in others, much as a bat maneuvers by echolocation. Because the genetics of her dramatic coloring are obscure, her light-skinned father assumes the infidelity of her mother and abandons them. Her mother, in thrall to the insidious color ranking system within the black community, is a “high yellow”, and finds her daughter’s “Sudanese black” skin repellent. So much so that she won’t even allow her to call her “mother”, insisting instead on the sobriquet, “Sweetness”.

    The defining event of Bride’s early life is a court case against a teacher charged with collaborating in child molestation. Bride (né Lula Ann) is brought in as a key witness. She tells the court what she hopes will elicit love from her unloving mother. The consequence of her choice redounds to the fictional present. Against her mother’s expectations, she grows into a stunning beauty. She rises through the ranks of a cosmetics company and is on the verge of launching her own line, which she calls “YOU, GIRL”. Ironically, she sells her image by wearing no makeup at all, nothing to mute her startling blackness, thereby commodifying the genetics her mother so hated. Like most of Morrison’s protagonists, she is not a thinker, existing by and for her passions. When she can no longer live with the damage caused by her court testimony, she thinks in grade-school equations: she did something bad, so she’ll do something good to cancel it out. When her gesture of what she imagines to be reconciliation is not received as such, she is knocked out. Literally. Around this time she falls for Booker, a sexy drifter with violence in his own past, a peculiarly old-school taste for jazz and trumpet playing, and a penchant for the Western literary canon. She shows a nearly pathological lack of curiosity about him until he leaves her with the words, “You not the woman I want.” In a turn for the bizarre, she begins losing body parts, first ear piercings and pubic hair, then breasts and menstrual cycle. Compounding the strangeness, only she seems to notice.

    Physically, Bride, at least when fully assembled, is at home in the company of Morrison’s perennial bombshells. It’s not hard to imagine Sula (Sula), Hagar (Song of Solomon), Jade (Tar Baby) Dorcus (Jazz), Grace (Paradise), Junior (Love), and Bride circling, chewing their cheeks at each other. Spiritually, Bride is not their equal. Even the weakest of these have more pizzaz. Grace, like most of the characters in Paradise, is not memorable, but she inhabits her voluptuousness in a way Bride does not, setting the town of Ruby ablaze with lust and resentment. Junior is almost visionary in her amorality, swinging her hips through the Baby Jane-esque cast of Love, brilliantly self-preserving, seducing even the dead. Bride has no such amplitude.

    Superficially, her closest predecessor is Jade from Morrison’s often neglected Tar Baby. Both use their beauty to get ahead in the image industries, Jade as a model, Bride in cosmetics. Disinclined to be revolutionaries, they each believe that the way to access the privileges on the far side of the color divide is to play the white game and win. Here ends the similarity. Jade is by far the more complex character. Her beauty is paired with a restless intelligence. When the handsome and provocative Son disrupts her white-sponsored life, her conflict is fraught, resisting simplistic resolution. She is beggared by the ferocious sexual charge between them, but counters with an equally fierce independence. Does she come to consciousness? Yes. But also no. Which is to say she does what she can, which is what human beings, and masterly characters in novels, do.

    By comparison, Bride’s journey, from a rather clichéd obsession with image to the equally clichéd realization that she must learn to love herself, feels sophomoric. The moral swells while the elements of story attenuate. Unlike Jade’s passionately engaged ambition, or Milkman’s (Song of Solomon) leaving behind his proud father to discover his father’s mythic past, or the devastation which Sethe must learn to release, Bride’s materialism lacks a lustiness worthy of the drama of forsaking. To what does she cling? What does she even have? Only her career, which she ditches as thoughtlessly as an empty lipstick tube.

    We rarely see her interact with her environment. For that matter, she is barely given an environment to interact with. Morrison moves her characters through a curiously abstracted space. But this is appropriate, given that she is a curiously abstracted character. She seems more to represent than to live. She represents a certain kind of Black response to the American Dream. She represents the plight of children of disturbed and unloving parents. We are told that she is sexual, but the evidence for it within her character is so dilute that it remains a construct, as if Morrison reasoned that this type of character, representing the unexamined American life, often comes with a strong sexual component and so, as a novelist, she should probably refer to it. Even Morrison’s famous language turns leaden here. In a monologue, Morrison has Bride tell us that her own sex life “…became sort of like Diet Coke—deceptively sweet minus nutrition. More like a PlayStation game imitating the safe glee of virtual violence and just as brief.” While it is not a stretch to imagine Bride forgoing an apparently nutritious regular soda in favor of a diet soda, what, really, has she to do with PlayStations? These allusions to niche interests in contemporary American culture fall flat (like an open can of Diet Coke sitting in the sun?) because they have little connection to the character doing the alluding. They have the floundering sound of an author trying to bring her work into an American present with which she is out of touch.

    Morrison may have recognized her character’s hollowness. Bride’s curious physical reversion seems like an attempt to at once drum up some physicality for her while adding to the didacticism of the parable. In the past, Morrison has made masterly use of the “magically real”: the marigolds that refused to grow in The Bluest Eye, Circe’s impossible longevity and Pilot’s lack of a navel in Song of Solomon, Sula’s consciousness of her own death, and, of course, Beloved’s haunting. These touches at once startle and seem fundamentally right, even necessary. They evoke spiritual forces with which the characters contend without ever descending to explanation. By contrast, Bride’s loss of her breasts is not so much startling as jarring, an underlined metaphor for her loss of identity, all but italicized in boldface when she herself comes down with “the scary suspicion that she was changing back into a little black girl.” And when, pedantically, her breasts return, the moment is less revelatory than slapstick. A character’s hair catches fire, so Bride whips off her top to smother the flames and discovers her bosoms are back. She has what is for her a moment of complexity: “But it was hard to suppress her glee, even though she was slightly ashamed at dividing her attention between the sad sight of Queen’s slide into the back of the ambulance and the magical return of her flawless breasts.” The word that rings in this rather forced sentence is “flawless”, making the developing human tragedy here come off as a pretext for the return of the tits. It’s hard to quell the suspicion that Morrison is confessing her own “slight shame” at her divided authorial attention.

    Much of the second half of the book follows Bride’s search for Booker. His trail leads her from the city to the country. In a monologue, her co-worker and pseudo-friend, Brooklyn, chastises Bride’s cowardice:  “But for you it’s ‘Wah, wah, I had to run…’ Where to? In some place where there is no real stationary or even a postcard? Bride, please.” Setting aside the reference to anachronistic writing material by a woman supposedly of the Instagram generation, I found a sympathetic sentiment rising to my own lips, though directed more at the author than the character: The city verses the country? Please. I might have felt differently if the city stood for something less prosaic than the wealth and image Bride had been chasing, or the country the simplicity her life needs to recover balance. But Morrison allows these locales, and their inhabitants, to become, not archetypes, like the neighborhood of “the Bottom” in the wondrous Sula, but stereotypes, right down to the aging Simon-and-Garfunkel-singing off-the-grid hippie couple who take Bride in when she breaks her ankle by crashing her Jaguar into a tree. Is this tongue and cheek? It doesn’t seem so.

    A lot has been made of the book’s focus on the sexual abuse of children. But it can’t really be said that the book is about this. Not in the sense that Beloved is about the manifold iterations of slavery and the difficulty of freedom. Child molestation, while heinous beyond words, lacks, as a theme, the philosophical weight of the slavery/freedom dialectic. It resists abstraction, quite rightly, and is therefore ill-suited to metaphor. Despite it’s prominent place in God Help the Child, it lacks urgency, coming across, instead, as bombast. If I didn’t have such respect for Morrison, I would say that she walks a fine moral line in her use of it in this book, for that is what it seems she has done: use it, rather than explore it. Without the weight the subject carries, her characters would float off the page. The shape of their lives is explained solely in terms of the lurid, headline grabbing experiences of their childhoods. Because the line of causation is so clear, so relevant, so unarguable, and because there is so little else to them, they often seem reduced to case studies. And since nearly every character has an occurrence to relate the charge of any single case peters out. This tempts the reader towards detachment, a feeling we are never permitted in The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s overwhelming first novel and first treatment of sexual predation against children. In that book, every breath we take we take with Pecola Breedlove and the pain of it shoots through us.

    Let it not be said that God Help the Child is without a sense of outrage. It’s here in spades, to be shared with any reader whose moral compass is in working order. But outrage is not thought, and as an emotion it lacks depth. As in life, feeling outraged by what one reads in a work of fiction can be a distraction, or, worse, a trick: one must think well, mustn’t one, of an opportunity to look squarely and righteously at a hard reality? Therefore this book must surely be a good one.

    A technique found throughout the Morrison oeuvre is the monologue. She used it to greatest symphonic effect in Jazz, where the opening voice – is it the author? is it God? is it the pages of the book itself? – both generates and is engendered by all that transpires in the novel. In God Help the Child, the monologue has become an expedience. Why shoulder the burden of furthering the story through telling incident, character interaction and dialogue? Far easier to simply have the characters tell the reader what’s going on with them. Towards the end of the novel, Booker tells us in a monologue:

    Bride probably knows more about love than I do. At least she’s willing to figure it out, do something, risk something and take its measure. I risk nothing. I sit on a throne and identify signs of imperfection in others. I’ve been charmed by my own intelligence and the moral positions I’ve taken, along with the insolence that accompanies them. But where is the brilliant research, the enlightening books, the masterpieces I used to dream of producing? Nowhere. Instead I write notes about the shortcomings of others. Easy. So easy.

    Except that Morrison has indeed produced masterpieces, Booker here presents the most cogent and concise critique of her as the author of this book.


    toni-morrisonWhen Toni Morrison began publishing novels in 1970, she did something few American writers have ever done, either before or since, not even William Faulkner: she produced, out of the gate and in succession, three masterpieces, The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), and Song of Solomon (1977). The third belongs to the heritage of world literature. Her forth, Tar Baby (1981) lacks the mythic power of the first three, but is still a fiercely intelligent work with passages of stunning beauty. Then, in 1987, she published a second Everest, Beloved. After this came Jazz (1992), a perplexing, often gorgeous experiment, less approachable than its predecessors, but with sufficient brilliance to make it recognizably from the same original mind. In 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize. All that she had produced up to then made this a ringer for Stockholm.

    Of the five novels she has written since, only one, A Mercy (2008) approaches some of the beauty of those first six. Paradise (1998) is tedious. Love (2003), for all it’s good writing, is airless, humorless, lacking scope. Her two latest novels, Home (2012) and God Help the Child (2015) are thin books in every sense. Both scream their hot but circumscribed issues over the weak voices of their characters, more ideograms than personalities. As literary constructions they feel thrown together, as if Morrison filled a file with a certain amount of sketch work then got tired and convinced herself she’d written enough.

    What has happened here? How did a great writer become a writer of decidedly minor books? Some critics feel the shift happened as early as Beloved, when she began viewing herself as a spokeswoman more than an author, when addressing issues became more important than writing literature. It is often noted that she has become grand where once she had been brave. Still, what happened? I expose myself as hopelessly outré, I know, by positing the daemon theory. I think she has one, and that it helped her produce an early run of stunning books. It gave her that opening line, “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” It made her one of the most revered American authors of the century. But it has now revealed itself as one of those nasty sorts who holds to the busybody notion that all good things must exist in balance. And so this latest book weighs in, and all I can say is God help God Help the Child.

    My personal ranking of Toni Morrison's uneven oeuvre
    My personal ranking of Toni Morrison’s uneven oeuvre


  • Nobel Laureates Lose Things Too — Part 1: Hemingway’s Lost Valise

    She insists, that flinty Elizabeth Bishop, that “the art,” (how coy) “of losing isn’t hard to master.” She presumably would know. Considering my response over the weekend to this blog going apparently missing, I’m clearly a slow study. I believe I was somewhat less infantile than I was on my fortieth birthday when I gave myself whiplash by looking rather too sharply over my shoulder at what I believed to be my years of hope and possibility streaming away from me, but I was in no sense composed. Put yourself in my suspenders: On Friday night, when I attempted to visit my two-year-old plot of cyber-acreage which I had named, quite wittily I thought, “The Stockholm Shelf”, I found my access blocked by an image of a smiling blonde female student, as intransigent as she was impertinent, presiding over a list of Stockholm-related links: Stockholm restaurants, Stockholm hotels, Stockholm furniture, Stockholm garden hoses, as well as a few items only identifiable in Swedish. I can mark the absurd, and even sometimes laugh at it, on two conditions, that it not be violent, and that it not affect me personally. Irrational, I know, but the latter always feels like the former. That is to say, Ms. Bishop, “like disaster.”

    Thankfully, the problem was only a glitch in my web host’s system which prevented it from acknowledging the renewal of my contract. The woman who caught my wailing at the receiving end of the help-line, whom I couldn’t help picturing of an age with that insipid blonde girl barring my path, barely suppressed her own sigh of dismay to explain that they had received exactly the same complaint numerous times over the past week and that the one technician able to fix the problem would apply himself to my site as soon as he could get to it. When on Monday I checked for the four-hundredth time, and the blonde girl was gone, and the reassuring layout of my WordPress dashboard met met my gaze with the equivalent of a raised brow, as if wondering where I had been, I nearly cried.

    It put me in mind of Hemingway and his lost valise. No help-line to call, no contending with dumb technology, although there was a girl involved, all those months and years of hard creative labor, the efforts to invent himself, gone, all at once, simply. Although – and here’s the absurd part – it wasn’t really gone. Someone had it. At least for awhile.

    Ernest Hemingway and Elizabeth Hadley Richardson in Switzerland
    Ernest Hemingway and Elizabeth Hadley Richardson in Switzerland

    The story goes that in December of 1922, while living in Paris and working as a correspondent for The Toronto Daily Star, Ernest Hemingway was placed on assignment in Switzerland to cover the Lausanne Peace Conference. While he had, by then, written some twenty four stories, twenty poems, and had a novel, probably A Farewell to Arms, well underway, he had not published a word of it. At the conference, he became reacquainted with a journalist and editor by the name of Lincoln Stevens, whom he had met once before in Genoa, Italy. Stevens was suitably impressed by Ernest’s writing and asked to see more. To this end, his wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson (his first, though at the time there was no intimation that she would eventually be so designated), who had stayed behind in their flat in Le Quartier Latin, packed up her husband’s writing, all of it, in a suitcase and and set out to meet him in Lausanne. At some point, while the Swiss-bound train sat, hissing and massive, in the Gare de Lyon in Paris, Hadley, as she was called, and the valise parted ways. Whether she had handed it to a porter or simply left it unattended, when she returned to her cabin, it was gone, together, I would imagine, with the contents of her bladder, or very nearly.

    The leading theory is that it was stolen. One feels for the thief. Imagine taking the trouble to swipe a valise, thinking it contained valuables, and finding it contained only sheafs of paper, scrawled and typed on. All that risk for a bulky item that then just needed to be disposed of, burned, buried, stashed, or perhaps thrown into the Seine. Once accomplished, the poor fellow would have faced whatever fortune remained to his days, never understanding that, if he had simply held on to the thing for a scant thirty two years, he would have had in his possession a treasure of inestimably greater value than whatever his most far-flung imaginings could have placed in that unprepossessing suitcase. To have in your hands even one Hemingway manuscript, and not to know it was a Hemingway manuscript, or what that would mean one day not too distant, and to let it go, it puts me in mind of Pablo Neruda’s prediction of the fate awaiting someone who has never read Julio Cortazar, the lack acting upon him as “a serious invisible disease which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who has never tasted peaches. He would quietly become sadder… and, probably, little by little, he would lose his hair.”

    To say nothing of how it affected Ernest Hemingway. He himself could not have known at the time what losing a Hemingway manuscript would one day mean, or not the extent of it. But he knew what it meant to him at the time, and something, no doubt, of what he hoped it would, or could, mean to the world, and somehow, despite all his efforts to think otherwise, Hadley wasn’t quite as pretty as she had been in November.

    In January 1923, Hemingway confided to Ezra Pound in a letter: “I suppose you heard about the loss of my Juvenalia (Hemingway’s misspelling)? Went up to Paris last week to see what was left and found that Hadley had made the job complete by including all carbons, duplicates, etc. All that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem which was later scrapped, some correspondence between John McClure and me, and some journalistic carbons. You, naturally, would say, ‘Good’ etc. But don’t say it to me. I ain’t yet reached that mood.”

    Not quite true that it was all that remained of his complete works. Two stories survived the disaster: “My Old Man,” which was actually in the hands of a magazine editor at the time, and “Up In Michigan”, which he had buried in a drawer after Gertrude Stein declared it good but, with its disturbing sexual content, inaccrochable.

    Yes, you read correctly. “Inaccrochable.”

    Pound’s response was that all he had actually lost was the time it would take to rewrite the pieces anyway. Hemingway rallied, and by 1925 had produced In Our Time, the book of stories that introduced the world to what would soon be, and forever after, known as the “Hemingway style”.

    The Gare de Lyon

    Many years later, with a Nobel Prize behind him, Hemingway recalled the loss of his early manuscripts. “It was probably a good thing it was lost,” he wrote in A Moveable Feast, “When I had written a novel before, the one that had been lost in the bag stolen at the Gare de Lyon, I still had the lyric facility of boyhood that was as perishable and deceptive as youth was.” Here, then, is a great writer’s take on loss, that after it shakes one where one lives, after the dust settles, after the ruins are assessed, it is revealed as a fundamentally ambivalent beast. The nerve endings heal or habituate, the scars are for keeps, and something that may not have been otherwise possible can come forth and change everything. In order for Hemingway to become what he was, it was most important for him to loose what he wasn’t.

    The teapot tempest of my three-days-missing blog put me in mind of Hemingway’s lost valise. It then occurred to me that, while Hemingway is a fine writer, he’s not so special as to be the only fine writer to have lost irreplaceable work. I had forgotten, for example, that Toni Morrison’s house burned down on Christmas Day, 1993, just three weeks after her trip to Stockholm. A little web-surfing turned up others among the Nobel laureates who had sustained similar losses. Pearl Buck, Tagore, Soltzhenitsyn, each experienced manuscripts gone missing. In upcoming posts, I’ll share their stories.


  • Reading Toni Morrison: A MERCY

    So, no Toni Morrison for me. Not for years. A bit like being a literary vegan, in retrospect.  I believed myself to be done with all that moralistic agenda exemplified by sentences like, “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” Done, I was, with all those freighted character names I had once thought so searching and apt, names like Circe, and Milkman. No more self-consciously high prose as matrix for illiterate or half-literate descendents of slaves.  Was their inherent dignity really so fragile as to require it? I’m not saying I didn’t touch a Morrison novel.  I touched them all right.  I would take them off my shelf, leaf through them, read a paragraph, or a page, then, as if practicing for a polygraph, I’d shake my head, will my pupils to shrink, slide them back between Momaday and Munro – careful not to bend their covers, of course – and construe myself superior to all that… superiority.

    All this cant was on account of my wanting to be a writer myself.  When I sat with my notebook before me, blue ballpoint in hand, Toni Morrison would start pounding in my head like a pick-up truck’s bass. I tried to write sentences like hers, but they floated off the page, sometimes with whole paragraphs in tow, unanchored as they were to any driving concern which could hold them in place. The same problem attended my efforts with Ulysses.  In both cases, I was too impressed by “great writing” and its corrollary, “writing greatly”, to plum my own dubious depths and steadily amass a personal vision of sufficient honesty and scope out of which might arise a necessary style.

    Then came 2008.  Two books by American authors were published that year each bearing a marked debt to Faulkner. Specifically, Absalom, Absalom!. Both, in very different ways, repaid the debt with interest. The first was Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, which offered up its tribute  overtly, complete with the conflagration of an emblematic mansion, and a central theme which could be summed up by the famous Faulknerian jewel, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” The second was A Mercy.

    I read it. And then, I read it again.

    I will not say that Morrison’s is the better book, but it is the stealthier.  Both Absalom, Absalom! and Shadow Country are about the fallout of unchecked ambition, the expanding circle of damage around one man’s power-mad rampage into primordial America. In each, a man, white, decides that greatness inheres in taking, be it land, be it the freedom of others, or the spiritual well-being of his own descendents.  In A Mercy the “taker” is Jacob Vaark, an Anglo-Dutch trader who has carved out a small holding in the wilderness of what would one day be New York. Vaark, known to his dependents as “Sir”, has in common with both Thomas Sutpen and Edgar J. Watson an explorer’s nervous system and a kind of Calvinistic shrewdness aimed at making good on the land. But he lacks a taste for subjugation.  As a white man and a land owner, the law of the still largely inchoate land (The Revolutionary War is still ninety years off) has imposed advantages upon him, and he certainly lives his way into those advantages. He does acquire a slave, but it is with a sense of realism and necessity rather than inclination or entitlement. Sutpen and Watson are ambiguous monsters, not wholly evil, but dangerous, larger than life, and at home with their own rapacity. Vaark is more or less sympathetic, responding simply and smartly with what he has been given to what arises before him.  He surely works for success, but his “superman” gene is recessive. By subtracting out the Neitzchean imperative, what might be called an “ubermensch neurosis”, from her white male land-and-slave owner “taker”, Morrison disallows the traditional romantic resting place for our concept of evil as residing in character, thereby exposing its true and awful “banality.”

    Morrison’s perennial theme is the dynamics of slavery, in her universe always more of a pas de deux than most people are comfortable with.  In A Mercy, each of her characters is, in one way or another, trying to make an escape.  Vaark gathers about him a small society of dependents, mostly women, each on the lam from a dire, enslaving past: Rebekka, Vaark’s wife, from heretic-burning England; Lina, a Native American, from her plague-ridden village, conquered and burned to the ground; the strange girl named Sorrow, ego-shattered and pregnant,  from the trauma of a shipwreck; and Florens, the slave girl Vaark purchases from a deliquescent Catholic plantation owner in “Mary’s Land”.  Also among them are two white men, Scully and Willard, one young, one middle-aged, working off indenture.  They share each other’s bed as well as their workload. This piece of undiscussed common knowledge, far from making them outlaws, gives them an aura of groundedness which mostly eludes the women. They make an artful contrast to the free black man whom Vaark hires as an blacksmith for his mansion.  Morrison has said that in this novel, she “wanted to separate race from slavery,” and by making it clear that the free black man, his own boss, earns much more than the two white men, who will likely not live long enough to emerge from under their debt, she again disallows us our comfortably liberal head shaking about that terrible “slavery thing” that some bad people used to do to other people based on their skin color or ethnicity. Slavery cuts across all barriers and takes no prisoners.

    On Florens is bestowed the “mercy” of the title.  Vaark (“Sir” to her) had originally wanted to purchase Florens’s mother. Ascertaining that Vaark could provide a less cruel life than the one she had endured, she presses her daughter upon him, begging him to take her instead. He agrees. But Florens is not of an age to understand her mother’s motives for giving her away, and, even if she was, the “mercy” would still be forever tied to abandonment, or worse, disposal.  She arrives at Vaark’s farm scarred and deeply needy.  Wide open and raw, she falls hard in love with the sexy free blacksmith.  Their lovemaking is transformative for her.  She believes herself needed at last. She will be everything to him, as he is to her. Vaark dies, and Rebekka contracts smallpox.  The blacksmith had once proved uncanny in curing Sorrow of the disease, so she sends Florens on the three-day journey through the wilderness to summon him from the village were he lives. When Florens arrives on his doorstep, she finds that he has taken in a small black boy, a foundling, and is raising him.  Her hatred of this child, this other, this competitor, is as wild as her love for the blacksmith. The story turns on how she navigates this crisis, or rather fails to, causing a catastrophe  which reveals her to the blacksmith as the slave she is, not for being bought by Sir, but made a slave by her own mind.

    Unlike Beloved, this is not a book about redemption. In the end, no one comes to Florens’s aid.  No one can, least of all herself. And yet there is redemption in Morrison’s art, distilled, pressed, agate-like, into a true late style.   And I am quite done, I believe, with being done with her.

  • Reading Toni Morrison: JAZZ and the loss of PARADISE

    In 1992 I graduated from college and began working in a bookstore (Considering the way of Borders, this may one day become a point of nostalgia, like my great grandfather working as a trolly car conductor.). Toni Morrison published Jazz that year, so I used my employee’s discountlet and, as with each of her previous novels, ate up the pages.  My heart beat slightly faster – don’t plead ignorance of the feeling, I know you know it – as I opened to the first page and discovered those first sentences:

    Sth, I know that woman.  She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue.  Know her husband, too.  He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, “I love you.”

    This was the Toni Morrison I knew and loved, writing books like Beethoven wrote sonatas, holograming the entire work into the opening measures. I continued loving her as I turned each subsequent page, loved her as my bewilderment mounted, loved her through those lyric interludes:

    …But there is nothing to beat what the City can make of a nightsky.  It can empty itself of surface, and more like the ocean than the ocean itself, go deep, starless. Close up on the tops of buildings, near, nearer than the cap you are wearing, such a citysky presses and retreats, presses and retreats, making me think of the free but but illegal love of sweethearts before they are discovered….

    loved her even as my bewilderment turned to bafflement so that by the end I had no idea what I had just read. It seemed she had set for me a riddle, like Princess Turandot, and, alas I was not to be her Calaf. I still loved her, or said so while idly rubbing my vulnerable neck, but there was no denying the fact that I had been decidedly chastened.

    Then she won the Nobel Prize.

    When Paradise came out in 1997, I decided I would not read it until I had read all her previous novels again (My inner Puritan lives for this kind of arbitrary injunction.). As a result, I never got around to reading it.  Reason being, it was about this time that I tried to get serious about being a writer myself.  All my reading had accumulated in what amounted to a literary bladder that most desperately needed easing. The solution, I thought, was to try to be a novelist myself. I started one project after another, grinding out words in a notebook, thinking this was the morally upright way to go about it, never getting past about thirty torturous pages.  I read The Bluest Eye, then Sula, then had to stop.  I found her voice too strong, too monumental.  Trying to write while reading Toni Morrison was like trying to sleep in a hot, airless apartment with Charlie Parker blasting above my head.  Out of defense, I decided to agree with those critics who found her writing “sententious”, “operatic”, “self-conscious”, “self-important”, “heavy-handed.” I began to read other writers, like Alice Monro and William Trevor, great writers whose plain, condensed prose can be many-hued, but never purple.  I remember resorting books on my shelf and coming across Jazz. I opened again to the first page. “Sth, yourself,” I said, and put it where it belonged.

    But this pose of disdain was struck precariously over the memory of the unalloyed pleasure I had while first learning to untangle Beloved. The spontaneous delight, as taken in shooting stars or a Baryshnikov jette, that accompanied the reading of each subsequent book, (save, perhaps, Tar Baby, which seemed uncharacteristic) had not gone anywhere. Which meant I always secretly suspected her detractors, myself included, of a kind of prudery. Or, or perhaps, bald envy.

  • Reading Toni Morrison: An Early Love

    For years I wouldn’t read Toni Morrison.  No skin off her nose, but our separation did come as a surprise to me, following as it did a period in my reading life when I would have ranked her among my favorite authors.

    For me it had been love on the very first page.  I encountered her first in college, as did so many, through Beloved. Second term, sophomore year, I took a group tutorial called, astoundingly, “The Philosophy of Religion”.  The course catalog should have read something like: “Two impossibly broad and historically opposed disciplines, set up so as the one can sound off about the other.” Might not its converse, “The Religion of Philosophy” have been the more challenging course? But we were young, me and my rather small milieu, new to the life of the mind, and eager, incredibly so, to make tracks into the interior of the continent where we believed that life thrived, and from which we could emerge with our intellectual trophies, and this, we knew, would make all the difference.

    It was a good class. Once a week, six of us, four earnest students and two equally earnest professors, one from each of the paired departments, crowded into a tiny windowless office with numbing off-white walls and not-quite full-spectrum overhead lighting for discussion.  The professors, a man in his late thirties with a sweet, comfortable-with-nerditude face and wire-rimmed glasses (phil.), and a slightly stocky, birkenstocked cotton-skirtted woman with longish red hair (rel.), assigned only four books, all novels: The Sleepwalkers, by Hermann Broch, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera, Beloved, and Franny and Zooey, by J. D. Salinger.  With the exception of the Salinger, I can’t fathom how the novels were railroaded into the class’s topic.  I just know that, at the time, Broch went right over my hair-do, but Kundera and, especially, Morrison, struck me as something so new under the sun that reading them further seemed imperative if I meant to continue using my ABCs. (Looking back, I think that if I had been of a somewhat more grounded sensibility, it would have been Salinger who would have affected me this way.  As it was, it took me much longer to arrive at his doorstep, and I’m not sure he’s ever extended to me the warm invitation to enter his world received and accepted by most other serious readers in English. Perhaps I will be late in this way too, as I have been in so many others…) Something about this Czech and this African-American, their philosophic weight, political engagement, stylistic exoticism, and, in Morrison’s case, romantic sweep, lit my fire as few others had.

    Beloved was the novel from which I learned to trust the narrator even while mistrusting my own perceptions. The intensely weighted prose, the high drama brewed in an alembic of temporal fluidity, the cultural vehemence, all of it strained, gloriously, my comprehension. After turning the last page, I felt like a new reader. I quickly snapped up her four previous novels and swallowed them whole.  Bad for digestion of course, but I was more interested in a sort of orgiastic glaze that they imparted than in assimilation of their considerable nutrients.  I tore into them, convinced that the key to my whole future rested in the hands of this strong-featured black woman, and my job was, through some vague projective magic, to convince her of my devotion. I had, thus far, read very little Shakespeare, no Faulkner, no Woolf, and, most cogently, none of the Greeks.  Which means that almost everything she wrote about was new to me.  I had never before encountered children bearing the children of their fathers, mothers who strangle their infants, or dowse their sleeping sons in gasoline and light them, women without navels old enough to have midwifed several generations of a single family, men with names like Stamp Paid, Milkman, Macon Dead, Tar Baby, names too transparently referential to external energies to be be anything but real, or at least true.

    Then there was the writing itself.  How about that first paragraph of The Bluest Eye, lifted directly from the “Dick and Jane” reader, printed first in all its stupefying banality, then repeated without punctuation, and a third time without spaces between words —such self-conscious artifice, and yet so remarkably effective, a bone-chilling wind of words.  Or this erotic evocation from Sula:

    Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. Heavy sunflowers weeping over fences; iris curling and browning at the edges far away from their purple hearts; ears of corn letting their auburn hair wind down to their stalks. And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the river with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind.

    Okay then. And, of course, the famous last page of Beloved, which begins:

    There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind—wrapped tight like skin. Then there is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.

    This seemed to me the very height. If such sentences were possible, who would want to write anything else?

    Read my next post to find out how this hazy glow of love I felt for Toni Morrison went the way of all hazy glows, and how it was, with time, replaced by a more sober and abiding admiration.  But, until then, perhaps you have a favorite Toni Morrison novel? A favorite passage? Any opinion about her as an artist? If so, I hope you’ll share it.