Toni Morrison, God Help the Child

God Help the ChildGod Help the Child by Toni Morrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fine novel. Not perfect, not even really complete in a writing-workshop “craft” sense, but surely Morrison’s best since Love. God Help the Child is a striking example of Saidian late style: the furious and unresolved valediction.

God Help the Child is written in a mixed mode, part chorally monologic, like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and part third-person heavy with free indirect discourse, as is more characteristic of Morrison’s style. It mainly tells the story of Lula Ann Bridewell, who goes by Bride, the dark-skinned child of a light-skinned mother whose colorism prevented her from loving her daughter fully. But Bride has come of age in a world where blackness is a commodity, and she is therefore able to vend her beauty successfully in the cosmetics industry. Despite the novel’s moral trajectory, which requires that Bride be humbled and brought to a kind of Tolstoyan zero-point before she can learn to love, Morrison invents a high-spirited and self-parodically self-regarding style for Bride’s monologues that I enjoyed and that made me reflect on the price—in energy, in invention, in aesthetics—that such novelists as Tolstoy and Morrison must pay for their strenuous moral vision, an essentially Platonic vision that insists on looking past the snare of beauty to the goodness beyond:

Wiggling my toes under the silk cushion I couldn’t help smiling at the lipstick smile on my wineglass, thinking, “How about that, Lula Ann? Did you ever believe you would grow up to be this hot, or this successful?”

Bride has been abandoned by her lover Booker, the novel’s catalyzing event, and eventually ends up on a quest in search of him. The novel’s fabulism—characters are starkly allegorical rather that deeply individualized—condenses picaresque, bildungsroman, and love story into Bride’s journey. She encounters on her way an ex-con white woman named Sofia whom she falsely accused in youth of child molestation, a young white girl named Rain whose mother hired her out to pedophiles, a white hippie couple who live an intentionally reduced life in California logging country and who care for Rain. When she finds Booker, she learns that he too is an indirect victim of child abuse: his brother was murdered by a pedophile, an early trauma from which he never recovered. And even Booker’s beloved aunt, Queen, who in many ways fits the standard Morrison figure of wise old woman (e.g., Pilate, Therese, Baby Suggs, Consolata), was complicit in the abuse of her own daughter.

Despite the novel’s narrative redemption from both twentieth-century hate and twenty-first century commodification of Bride’s dark skin, God Help the Child is actually Morrison’s least race-conscious, least gender-conscious novel; it is about the oppression of children by adults, an oppression in which she shows rich and poor, black and white, male and female, to be complicit. Morrison makes this point quite literally by having almost every character be the victim of some sort of child abuse; but she also complicates matters by indicating that sexual or physical violence against children is only a symptom of a broader problem, for which it may indeed act as a scapegoat. Thus, Bride has to falsely accuse a teacher of being a child molester to get the attention of her mother, whose “abuse” takes the form of a far more insidious lovelessness.

Why do I put abuse in quotation marks? Partly because I fear that Morrison is exaggerating: being raped and murdered by a pedophile is one thing, being emotionally neglected by one’s mother quite another. Not a single one of us, not even the luckiest, emerged from childhood without some damage; usually, one just has to get over it and realize that, in most cases, parents do the best they can with what they have. But then I fear conversely that I am evading Morrison’s radical challenge. What is the root, after all, of adults’ mistreatment of children? Here is Morrison giving an interview in 1981 to Charles Ruas, found in the volume Conversations with American Writers, chastising her own generation, the generation of the sexual revolution:

I feel that my generation has done the children a great disservice. I’m talking about the emotional support that is not available to them any more because adults are acting out their childhoods. They are interested in self-aggrandizement, being “right,” and pleasures. Everywhere, everywhere, children are the scorned people of the earth. There may be a whole lot of scorned people, but particularly children. The teachers have jobs, not missions. Even in the best schools, the disrespect for children is unbelievable. You don’t have to go to the exploitation, the ten-year-old model and child porn—that’s the obvious. Even in the orderly parts of society it is staggering. Children are committing suicide, they are tearing up the schools, they are running away from home. They are beaten and molested; it’s an epidemic. I’ve never seen so many movies in which children are the monsters, children are the ones to be killed.

The root of all evil is selfishness, caring for self more than other, enriching oneself at the expense of the other: “self-aggrandizement, being ‘right,’ and pleasures.” But to locate this selfishness not in capital-p Political forms of oppression, such as racism, but rather in an Original Sin inhering in the generational relation, perhaps even the mother-child relation, leaves us with a despairing view. Political problems can be fixed, in theory anyway, but greed? selfishness? Morrison, more Christian than Marxist, names greed (rather than capitalism, greed’s epiphenomenon) the root of all oppression in the intellectual Booker’s collegiate meditation:

So as a graduate student he turned to economics—its history, its theories—to learn how money shaped every single oppression in the world and created all the empires, nations, colonies with God and His enemies employed to reap, then veil, the riches. He habitually contrasted the beaten, penniless, half-naked King of the Jews screaming betrayal on a cross with the bejeweled, glamorously dressed pope whispering homilies above the Vatican’s vault.

Radix malorum est cupiditas. But Morrison has never presented the problem quite so clearly; the complicating factors, including race and gender, have largely fallen away, and we are left with adult villains and child victims. Morrison used to perceive the menace in a child, which, if it didn’t exist, would leave all those 1970s horror movies that Morrison complains about bereft of what was in fact their large audience: remember when Sula killed Chicken Little, accidentally or on purpose or accidentally on purpose?

God Help the Child depicts unselfish love only after Booker’s aunt Queen is burned in a “sneaky fire,” symbolic, I suppose, of the hidden or repressed damage in her household and all our lives:

And she bathed her one section at a time, making sure the lady’s body was covered in certain areas before and after cleansing. She left Queen’s feet untouched because in the evening when Booker relieved her he insisted, like a daily communicant at Easter, on the duty of assuming that act of devotion.


They worked together like a true couple, thinking not of themselves, but of helping somebody else.

When Booker and Bride are about to become parents at the end of the novel, they vow that things will be different. But the narrator gently and decisively corrects them:

A child. New life. Immune to evil or illness, protected from kidnap, beatings, rape, racism, insult, hurt, self-loathing abandonment. Error-free. All goodness. Minus wrath.

So they believe.

Hence the novel’s final line, spoken ironically by Bride’s “bad” mother, which is also the novel’s title: an earnest plea and a bitter one, bitter if there is no real or final help.

The comparison between (late) Tolstoy and (late) Morrison may prove a very precise one, not just a reviewer’s rhetorical flourish. Here we have two revered national and international authors giving us in their old age starker and starker pictures of how human life falls short in almost all cases of an ideal unselfishness and absolute love. The starkness is to be cherished, I think. Critics are complaining that this book is too spare, too little lived-in, but the details are for the most part right and the voices are audible. The novel’s blurry but evocative California setting, new in Morrison, is perfect: the dystopic freeway city of falsity and commodities gives way to the laboring wilderness of logging country. I was only surprised, and mildly disappointed, that the novel never made it out to sea. Without wishing to fall into anti-intellectualism, I do think criticism can become too finicky; we need, in reading God Help the Child, the wisdom displayed by James Joyce when he judged “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” to be “the greatest story that the literature of the world knows.” (Though I have always preferred “Alyosha the Pot” myself.)

Morrison and Tolstoy. Both authors in their late phase even have the same faults: a weakness for the oversimplified parable and the moral lesson, an insistence on a standard so high none can meet it. Such standards are perhaps the luxury of old age, just as they are of adolescence. Moral fanaticism belongs to the prologue and the epilogue of adult life: unable to act freely in the world, adolescents and elders can judge action and freedom for what they’re worth, which is to say very little, unless inhabited righteously. They’re probably correct, but what the hell can we, nel mezzo del cammin, do about it, aside from reading and relishing their flawed, disturbing, brilliant books?

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