My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Paradise was not well received upon its publication in 1997—influential critics like Michiko Kakutani, James Wood, and Zoë Heller disparaged it, and even Oprah’s audience, instructed to read it for the talk show host’s book club, demurred, prompting Oprah to call Morrison to offer the viewers encouragement. One of the studio audience members protested that, confused by the novel’s multiple perspectives and non-linear chronology, she was lost on page 19; Oprah asked Morrison what the poor woman was to do; and Morrison’s reply—which I have never forgotten—was, “Read page 20.” Unsurpassable advice! Profiling Morrison in 2012, Boris Kachka summarizes the case against Paradise:
Both Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Don DeLillo’s Underworld came out in 1997, the year Paradise did. Both addressed historical eras and themes, as Morrison does, but both spoke directly to contemporary anxieties in a way that Paradise did not. Roth and DeLillo were nostalgic for an old American consensus and alarmed at its disintegration, and both used voices resonant with modern paranoia and neurosis. In contrast, Morrison still seemed to be in cross-racial dialogue with the same long-dead Modernists on whom she’d written her thesis in the fifties.
This is both right and wrong: Morrison does reject any nostalgia for postwar consensus (whether or not Roth and DeLillo express this nostalgia is another matter), but in so doing she very much speaks to “contemporary anxieties”; the problem is simply that many readers did not like either what she said or how she said it. They are entitled to their opinions about the “what,” but once you have allowed such opinions to cloud your view of the “how”—for example, none of the above critics show any awareness that Paradise is often supposed to be funny—then you have lost critical control.
Let’s get the “what” out of the way right now: Paradise bears an epigraph from a gnostic gospel narrated by a female deity, and it concludes with the theophany of a black madonna. Searching for a term to describe its apparent ideology, I could come up with nothing more neutral than “New Age.” It is a novel that, parodying the Bible, at least entertains the notion that our religious sensibilities must expand to include female divinity. While this view would undoubtedly not interest Philip Roth much, it, along with other dissident religious approaches harking back to gnostic and pagan cults, was undoubtedly reflected in much late-twentieth-century Anglo-American culture. Such views are embarrassing to the liberal intelligentsia because said intelligentsia legitimates itself by its appeal to secular knowledge and often materialist or at least spiritually orthodox intellectual methods, and not without reason. This religious reflex, I believe, and not simply snobbism or sexism, accounts for the critical cringe Nick Salvato writes about with respect to Tori Amos, some of whose songs (see “Marys of the Sea,” for instance) could furnish a soundtrack to Paradise.
But I did write above that Paradise “entertains” its religious thesis rather than straightforwardly promoting it. As Boris Kachka notes, Morrison remains faithful to modernism. If modernist writers from Eliot to Woolf shared one thing in common, it was a commitment to putting forth their spiritual intuitions in obsessively fragmented and recursive literary forms, to remind readers to take no single narrative on faith, especially not narratives about faith. This brings us back to Oprah’s audience and their problem with Paradise: the novel has no single viewpoint, no clear chronology, no central character, and no reliable perspective. The most basic facts of the narrative remain in doubt by its conclusion. Even the miraculous resurrections with which it seems to end could be explained by a mixture of lucky escape and hallucination. Condemning religious orthodoxy and political ethno-nationalism for their shared demand of unthinking assent, Morrison leaves her readers free to differ with her suggestion that they worship the goddess.
“They shoot the white girl first,” the novel famously begins. Its opening chapter is really its penultimate one, narrating the story’s climax: in July 1976, nine leading male citizens of the all-black town of Ruby, OK, murder five women who are living in a former convent near the town. This first chapter is maddeningly indirect, as none of the men or women is named; moreover, we see through the men’s POV so that the perspective is unreliable from the start (“They are nine, over twice the number of the women” they are seeking, the second paragraph begins; but, as Ron David long ago pointed out, nine is not “over twice” five; these little word problems occur throughout the text, making it impossible to read passively). The opposite of a mystery novel—though something of a mystery play—Paradise tells us who committed the murder in the first chapter and then spends the rest of the book seeking an explanation.
The next eight chapters, each bearing a woman’s name, tell the story of how four women on the run assembled in the late 1960s and early 1970s in an embezzler’s mansion that became a Catholic convent and Indian boarding school before falling into disuse. In the stories of these women—Mavis, Gigi, Seneca, and Pallas—Morrison enumerates the threats faced by the poor, the young, or the female, such as poverty, state violence, domestic violence, and sexual predation from the “mundane” (Mavis’s marital rape at the hands of her husband) to the more outlandish (the Eyes Wide Shut scenario to which Seneca is subjected by a wealthy woman named Norma Keene Fox). Animal imagery abounds in the women’s stories, from aforementioned predator “Keene Fox” to the name of Mavis’s mother (Birdie Goodroe), as does classical and mythical allusion (Pallas, Seneca), to signal that this novel asks to be read skeptically as a work of exaggeration, as fable and myth rather than strict social realism. In fact, Morrison parodies realism with aplomb in the Mavis chapter, throwing brand names and other “dirty realist” paraphernalia onto the page with witty abandon—this to trick us into thinking that Mavis is “the white girl” of the first sentence by writing about her in the literary idiom associated with the white lower class.* Realism too, Morrison here tells us, is a fable, one whose moral we might distrust. As in her oft-misunderstood statement about Bill Clinton as the first black president, Morrison is making the point that “tropes of blackness” are often simply tropes of poverty, the latter fact deliberately obscured by the powers-that-be to divide the poor.
Those eight chapters also interleave the women’s stories with the story of the founding of Ruby, “the one all-black town worth the pain.” Summarizing this straightforwardly is no easy feat since the narrative comes piecemeal and from partial perspectives. The basic story is this: a group of very dark-skinned black people who had lived near Louisiana since the mid-eighteenth-century found themselves, at the end of Reconstruction, dismissed or oppressed not only by whites but also by lighter-skinned blacks. This led them to found their own town called Haven in 1890 in Oklahoma, when many all-black towns were created due to the federal government’s encouragement of homesteading. When Haven fell into poverty and disrepair in the mid-twentieth-century, the grandchildren of Haven’s founders set out again and founded a new town called Ruby.
In the 1960s and ’70s, however, Ruby is torn by the social conflicts tearing apart the rest of the country—between men and women, old and young, conservative and radical. These conflicts center on the town’s symbolic center, a brick oven that bears the words “the furrow of his brow.” The contending ideological forces in the town differ over how this message is the be completed: “Beware the Furrow of His Brow,” as the conservative town elders insist, or, in the preferred message of the young radicals, echoing the gnosticism that Morrison evokes with her epigraph, “Be the Furrow of His Brow”? Or even, as one of the town’s female citizens thinks, “Be the Furrow of Her Brow.” Eventually, the town elders come to see the convent women as the source of their troubles—”not a convent but a coven”—and go on a witch hunt.
Just before they are hunted down, the women consolidate themselves into a quasi-religious order. The old woman Consolata, who was kidnapped from a Rio slum by the nuns and who has lived in the convent ever since, becomes the “new revised Reverend Mother” for a kind of mystery cult wherein the women shave their heads and heal themselves with “loud dreaming” and artistic expression. These scenes provoked a not entirely unpersuasive objection from Zoë Heller in the London Review of Books (“the narrative itself dissolves into Adrienne Rich-ish poetry”), but just as Morrison is unsparing in her portrayal of the racism and colorism that led the men of Ruby to their extremes of intolerance, so her tongue never quite leaves her cheek in her depiction of this New Age religion, which makes the women too otherworldly to function: “Gradually they lost the days.” Warned by a female citizen of Ruby that they are about to be attacked, the women “yawned and smiled,” a small detail but a crucial one: Morrison, who once rather hair-raisingly wrote that it is “wildly irresponsible” not to inquire about women’s complicity in their own rape or abuse, places supreme importance on personal autonomy and the material means of self-reliance. In the last glimpse we get of the convent women, after they have either come back from the dead or are appearing as ghosts to their loved ones, they are on the road and they are armed.
“Come back from the dead”: yes, however hedged by modernist technique, Paradise entertains a spiritual notion. It does not entirely dismiss Christianity; Ruby’s newest clergyman, Rev. Misner, is sympathetic to the young radicals in the town and muses with eloquence and authority on liberation theology:
See? The execution of this one solitary black man propped up on these two intersecting lines to which he was attached in a parody of human embrace, fastened to two big sticks that were so convenient, so recognizable, so embedded in consciousness as consciousness, being both ordinary and sublime. See? His woolly head alternately rising on his neck and falling toward his chest, the glow of his midnight skin dimmed by dust, streaked by gall, fouled by spit and urine, gone pewter in the hot, dry wind and, finally, as the sun dimmed in shame, as his flesh matched the odd lessening of afternoon light as though it were evening, always sudden in that climate, swallowing him and the other death row felons, and the silhouette of this original sign merged with a false night sky. See how this official murder out of hundreds marked the difference; moved the relationship between God and man from CEO and supplicant to one on one? The cross he held was abstract; the absent body was real, but both combined to pull humans from backstage to the spotlight, from muttering in the wings to the principal role in the story of their lives.
All the same, the definition and defense of female divinity comes into view as the novel’s theme. To the men of Ruby, the women they hunt are “[b]odacious black Eves, unredeemed by Mary.” But Consolata tells us that “Eve is Mary’s mother,” and the novel ends, very beautifully, with Consolata in the arms of black madonna, presumably like that worshipped in her native Brazil:
In ocean hush a woman black as firewood is singing. Next to her is a younger woman whose head rests on the singing woman’s lap. Ruined fingers troll the tea brown hair. All the colors of seashells—wheat, roses, pearl—fuse in the younger woman’s face. Her emerald eyes adore the black face framed in cerulean blue. Around them on the beach, sea trash gleams. Discarded bottle caps sparkle near a broken sandal. A small dead radio plays the quiet surf.
There is nothing to beat this solace which is what Piedade’s song is about, although the words evoke memories neither one has ever had: of reaching age in the company of the other; of speech shared and divided bread smoking from the fire; the unambivalent bliss of going home to be at home—the ease of coming back to love begun.
When the ocean heaves sending rhythms of water ashore, Piedade looks to see what has come. Another ship, perhaps, but different, heading to port, crew and passengers, lost and saved, atremble, for they have been disconsolate for some time. Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in paradise.
In other words, don’t divide Eve from Mary, whore from madonna, but adopt a holistic spiritual view capable of embracing flesh and spirit, capable of leading us away from domination based on or justified by difference.
Do not miss, as the early critics did, the ending’s emphasis on “endless work” (nor the admission that “down here” is all the paradise we’re likely to get). What is the “endless work”? The work of interpretation. Midway through the novel, Ruby’s resident writer Patricia, who has been assembling a genealogy, discovers that the men of the town have been maintaining their racial purity through incest in a parody of white racism (“They think they have outfoxed the whiteman when in fact they imitate him”). Upon finding this out, she burns her family trees—this to suggest that any attempt at purification is to be rejected as an arbitrary imposition. Ruby’s elderly midwife, Lone, takes a view of God that is more in keeping with the novel’s narrative mode:
Playing blind was to avoid the language God spoke in. He did not thunder instructions or whisper messages into ears. Oh no. He was a liberating God. A teacher who taught you how to learn, to see for yourself. His signs were clear, abundantly so, if you stopped steeping in vanity’s sour juice and paid attention to His world.
Read the clues, try to assemble the narrative, but accept in advance your defeat even as you press forward in trying to understand. I accept—there is so much more to say about Paradise. About characters and their names (“His grandfather had named his twins Deacon and Steward for a reason”), about twins and doubles. I have merely alluded to Morrison’s parody of the Biblical Exodus and its American re-creation by the Puritan settlers, and I have not even mentioned how the novel emphasizes that both Ruby and the convent exist only because the land was cleared by the state of its prior Native American inhabitants. I have not mentioned the novel’s love of nature, its endless invention, its food (the hot peppers that grow only at the convent).
Nor have I mentioned Paradise‘s flaws: it really is too short and feels thinner than it should as a result, with poetic prose often doing duty for narrative and characterization (James Wood was not wrong in this complaint). A novel of this spiritual and political ambition should be as long as The Brothers Karamazov, and I am convinced that Morrison would not bore us at that length.
Well, every narrative is flawed, including that of Paradise, as Paradise itself tells us. Even so, after twenty years we can say that its first critics judged it too hastily or too ideologically. It sits on the shelf without embarrassment next to the most ambitious fictions of its time. Don’t take my word for it. Read it and “see for yourself.”
* It is often said that Morrison does not reveal who “the white girl” is, but this is false; readers are told her identity—indirectly but decisively—on the penultimate page of the eighth chapter. Her identity is crucial to the novel’s theme of race as class, for the convent’s lone white girl is also its lone rich girl.