• Category Archives Novels
  • 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.

  • OF LOVE AND OTHER DEMONS: Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Immortality Project (part1)

    “You people have a religion of death that fills you with joy and courage to confront it,” he said.  “I do not: I believe the only essential thing is to be alive.”

    There is no more private experience than reading a great book in a public place, especially when closing in on the final paragraphs. You begin to hear the low roar of the material world you will soon be rejoining, and for the first time perceive that the narrative fabric you had drawn about you, so close as to nearly mistake it for yourself, is in fact, separate, temporal.  Against your impending separation, a sort of preemptive nostalgia sets in.

    Such was I at Starbucks, about to be expelled from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s bronze-bright elegy, Of Love and Other Demons, into that uniquely American environment, the corporate comfort spot, a three-dimensional cartoon of a soulful gathering place.  The un-named New World port of Garcia Marquez’s 1994 novel, whose harbor democratically floats both moribund slave ships and vessels baring Spanish viceroys, and whose nearby hills yield up rabid monkeys ready, at the sound of the Te Deum, to storm the cathedral, had far more to do with life than the faux-suade bench on which I sat with my “for here” cup of coffee, surrounded by the humorless lap-top crowd (which, as a new blogger, I have recently, ambivalently, joined ). I was about to turn the last page on this story of an ill-fated marquise, a twelve year old girl with stupendous copper-colored hair, and her lover, a bookish priest whose life she had just spent half the book upending, when I came upon the above statement, about a “religion of death,” and how the “essential thing is to be alive”.

    As it happened, I was reading, concurrently, Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. Becker, a cultural anthropologist steeped in post-Freudian theory, argues that denial of death is not only ubiquitous, but necessary. We come apart at our weakly stitched seams at the very idea of oblivion, and so we gird ourselves with other ideas, such as “work”, “family”, “religious belief” “sex”. We construct from them a kind of boundary drawn against the abyss, a world in which we can be our own heroes, giving us the happy illusion of immortality.  They become our “immortality projects”. For Becker, the measure of mental health is not how completely one is able to throw over illusions and stare into the dark, but how well one chooses the illusions by which one lives.

    With those two sentences, there on the penultimate page of Of Love and Other Demons, the novel introduced itself to the work of psychoanalytic philosophy with which it had been sharing mind space, and it finally occurred to me that Garcia Marquez’s characters are all embroiled in immortality projects.  They practically pulse with need – for love, for power, rectitude, freedom, or the production of their own bile, heroic endeavors all, stroked by each to secure a promise of continuance. The statement is delivered to the love-infested Father Cayetano Delaura by Doctor Abrenuncio de Sa Pereira Cao, a Portuguese Jew who had fled to the Caribbean to escape the great “Iberian persecution”. Which is to say, he enters the picture as acquainted with death as any, and better than most.  Certainly better than the Spanish colonials with whom he interacts, who tend to be either deliquescent aristocrats, or religious, sequestered behind the walls of their order.  The doctor’s irony rings clear: He observes to Delaura that his “religion of death” gives him, and his people, a kind of death-seeking gusto, as if death was a prize. But Abrenuncio understands that a genuine reckoning with death can lead one only to the conclusion that living, when it comes down to it, is what there is to live for. All the rest – love, God, pleasure, revenge, altruism, or even romantic and religious notions of death – are only satellites of meaning circling the living exclusively. The dead need not trouble themselves.

    He brings a clear-eyed view of life’s brutishness to the case of the beautiful young Marquise, Sierva Maria, who, weeks after being bitten by a rabid dog, remains free of symptoms, but heavy with projections.  Every character she encounters finds her possessed of a formidable, sinister power, and makes her over into the ideal catalyst for his or her immortality project. To Josefa Miranda, Abbess of the convent of Santa Clara, who has been ordered by the Bishop to keep Sierva Maria sequestered while awaiting exorcism, it is the power of Hell itself:  She cites as evidence of the precocious twelve year old’s demonic possession her ability to turn invisible, and to sing with inhuman beauty. Her preternatural tresses, jewelry from her father’s slaves, and the inciting fascination she exerts on the sisters don’t help her case. Who better than one demon-possessed to focus the Abbess’s quest for holiness through earthly order? To Sierva Maria’s appointed exorcist, Father Delaura, mild-mannered, living in a scholastic cloud, yet with a high passion for forbidden books, her’s is a power, not to be resisted, but to be conceded to, promising a scarcely imagined fulfillment to all his secret longings – erotic, yes, but more the desire to transcend order altogether.

    Father Delaura comes on the scene a third of the way through the novel, and only meets Sierva Maria slightly past the half-way mark. Up to this point, Garcia Marquez presents the titular demon as an artifact of the neurotic colonial and religious world view, the chimeric spawn of imperial anxiety and Catholic repression. But as the priest and the alleged possessed begin their labors together, the demon becomes something more palpable, not so tidily managed by our righteous enlightenment. It emerges that Love is the demon who beleaguers every character in the book, with the possible exception of the Doctor, and even he does not escape its galvantic weather system.

    So, how does love, what the song rightly says the world needs now, turn demonic?  For all its gifts, we have each, at some point, experienced it as such. For one thing, Love is the ultimate immortality project. This is not in itself a negative, and Love is, of course, many other things as well, but one need only watch The Umbrellas of Cherburg, and hear Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuova sing to each other, ad nauseum, “Pour un millier d’étés, je vais attendre pour vous/ Si ça prend une éternité, je vais attendre pour vous” (“For a thousand summers, I will wait for you/If it takes forever, I will wait for you”) to be reminded of the authority Love has, in fantasy, to bestow immortality on those who give themselves over to it. Love, in all its guises, is one of the human race’s most ubiquitous heroic endeavors, and as we battle out our lives, the more prominently we bear cupid’s wounds, the more assured we feel of our immortality.  All of us, however expensively bought our cynicism, however sound our repudiations, all of us cleave to the belief that the Beloved can be our salvation, that death will not part us, but be our gateway to eternity.  Each of us is a little Isolde, singing our liebestod at the top of our collapsing lungs.

    Well.  I could go on about the treasures in this novel. Perhaps I’ve written enough here to account for my reluctance to re-enter the Starbucks present. I hope to pick up here in a future post and explore further Love’s impact on these souls. For now, I’ll leave you with with a short passage from the book, an exchange between the Bishop and his much loved assistant, the ill-fated Father Delaura.  As a violent storm rages outside, the Bishop expresses his homesickness for Spain:


    “How far we are!”

    “From what?”

    “From ourselves,” said the Bishop.  “Does it seem reasonable to you that a man should need up to a year to learn he is an orphan?”  And since there was no answer, he confessed to his homesickness: “The very idea that they have already slept tonight in Spain fills me with terror.”

    “We cannot intervene in the rotation of the earth,” said Delaura.

    “But we could be unaware of it so that it does not cause us grief,” said the Bishop.  “More than faith, what Galileo  lacked was heart.”

    Delaura was familiar with these crises that tormented the Bishop on nights of melancholy rain ever since old age had assailed him.  All he could do was distract him from the attack of black bile until sleep overcame him.