My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The cover of this edition makes it look like a horror movie—and that’s not at all wrong. An intense novel, terse as a modern lyric, a monologue organized around its central image: the three generations of women in the house, telling over and over to the child of the fourth generation the story of the brutal incestuous pimp and rapist slave-owner Corregidora, the father of the heroine’s grandmother and her mother, hence the source of her surname. The women transmit the trauma to the child because that’s the only way to keep it in evidence since the slave-owning class of Brazil destroyed its records. But this transmission keeps the psychological violence going, perpetuates it through the generations. The thesis that it’s pernicious to treat history (which has to be learned dispassionately) as if it were memory (which is re-lived and embodied) gets a thorough airing here, and much more persuasively for being dramatized than in the brilliant and facile—in all senses—theorizing of Walter Benn Michaels, who has argued to similar effect in The Shape of the Signifier. So what should be done with the history of oppression if it shouldn’t be incorporated in childhood at the feet of prior generations?
This is the narrative of the last of the Corregidoras, Urse, the blues singer, who is rendered unable to bear children due to her husband’s abuse on the second page of the book. While the novel deals with the reverberations of the trauma with which it begins, I started to get the sense that it might have been less traumatic than her female elders’ insistence that she must have children to pass on the evidence of Corregidora’s depredations. Like other novels of its era—Portnoy’s Complaint or Steps or The World According to Garp—Corregidora is an unremitting stream of more or less unpleasant sexual incidents. Every man proves to be abusive and possessive. But women’s own love is also shown to be self-destructive and destructive of others, especially other women. Not to mention the novel’s similarly unpleasant—arguably till the end—depictions of lesbians, from the slave-owning Corregidora’s wife, who also sleeps with the enslaved women, to Urse’s frenemies Cat and Jeffy. In short, the novel seems to represent sexuality itself—male or female, black or white, straight or gay—as a cruel disease. Given old man Corregidora’s erotic motive for buying women, Jones can’t help but imply, whatever her intention, that diseased and disturbed sexuality was more the cause than the effect of slavery. Perhaps the most memorable discursive passage in the book hints in the style of grim mid-century late modernism (cf. Samuel Beckett [“They give birth astride of a grave”] or Jorge Luis Borges [“Mirrors and copulation are abominable because they multiply the number of men”]) that sex is bad because it perpetuates our cursed species:
She thought she had to go to the toilet, and then something told her not to go outside to the outhouse like she was going to, and then she squat down on the chamber pot. And then that’s how she had your Gram, coming out in the slop jar. That’s how we all begin, remember that. That’s how we all begin. A mud ditch or a slop jar or hit the floor or the ground. It’s all the same. But you got to make generations, you go on making them anyway.
How, then, to tell the necessary tale about oppression, how should the modern black woman give her testimony, if not to her descendants? The question answers itself:
I am Urse Corregidora. I have tears for eyes. I was made to touch my past at an early age. I found it on my mother’s tiddies. In her milk. Let no one pollute my music. I will dig out their temples. I will pluck out their eyes.
From breast to voice, from milk to music, from inert history to incipient revolt: art is the answer.
What about the art of this novel? It loses its way toward the end, I think, dissipating tension in a surplus of memories of yet more sexually unpleasant sequences. And the end is maybe prematurely redemptive, given what’s gone before, though the novel’s sexual climax on the penultimate page is a forceful revelation.
Corregidora might have worked better as a novella, short and brutal, since brutality when extended and repeated tends to lose its effect and become numbing. Toni Morrison, who was the editor on this book when it was first published, obviously took a lot of influence from it (in Jones’s book we find the slavery-haunted house of the women from old to young as in Beloved, the group of women arrayed around a violent man they both revile but are masochistically drawn to as in Love, even the decadent evil Portuguese slave-owner from A Mercy), but Morrison’s Sula, published two years before Corregidora, treats similar subject matter—above all, the black woman’s need for independence, from history, from men, from family—with greater emotional variety and amplitude. But this is a minor complaint, like criticizing a knife for not being a fork. Corregidora is a knife.