Toni Morrison, Paradise

ParadiseParadise by Toni Morrison

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.”


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Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of NantucketThe Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Calm block fallen down here from some dark disaster
—Stéphane Mallarmé, “The Tomb of Edgar Poe”

Edgar Allan Poe must have the strangest legacy in modern literature: he invented both pulp fiction and the literary avant-garde.

While these two tendencies may—in their shared commitments to sensationalism and formalism—be allies in a high-low war against the middle mind (exemplified in literature by the realist novel and the expressive lyric), it is quite a feat to have birthed them both. But Poe codified several important popular genres that would later flourish in the era of mass literacy and mass media (horror, detective fiction, science fiction) and thereby influenced such proto-pulp and pulp writers as Doyle, Stevenson, Wells, and Lovecraft, even as his theoretical insistence on a “pure” (i.e., non-mimetic) literary writing designed to affect the reader through the manipulation of form and surface, not to mention his depiction of disordered psychological states and waking dream-worlds, bequeathed a legacy to modernism and the avant-garde through Baudelaire and the French Symbolists and Decadents as well as such other admirers as Dostoevsky, Wilde, and Kafka.

Whether pulp fictioneer or avant-garde poet, Poe is the founder of a literature concerned with the production of forms (well-constructed generic tales or abstract sound-surface lyrics) rather than of truth or meaning. Neither a thriller nor an avant-garde poem can really be read as one is supposed to read Keats or Hawthorne, whose texts are dense entanglements of allusion and implication; thrillers and avant-garde poems are rather absorbed as intellectual structures and interpreted as sensational events. In this sense, Poe is one of first writers who, as in the German critical judgment that opens his story “The Man of the Crowd,” does not permit himself to be read.

All of this is an apology for the egregious amount of time it took me to read Poe’s brief only “novel,” The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), and the egregious amount of skimming I did while “reading” it. Scare quotes abound, because The Narrative is not really a novel at all—it is a faux memoir/travelogue that eventually becomes a visionary romance (the introduction to my edition says that it “starts like Defoe and ends like Coleridge”)—and it cannot be read, because its seemingly mimetic passages are plagiarisms or hoaxes mimicking genuine travelogues (these are the parts I skimmed) while its visionary passages are not only meaningless in themselves but are allegories of the meaningless.

The tale: the title hero—a fictional double for the author, as the similarity of their names (Edgar/Arthur, Allan/Gordon, Poe/Pym) suggest—wants to escape his bourgeois family, so he runs away to sea by stowing away on the Grampus, a whaler whose captain is the father of his best friend Augustus. (Even before this, in the novel’s overture-like first chapter, Pym and Augustus take a boat out on a drunken night and suffer a wreck that should have warned them away from the water.) But the Grampus falls first to mutiny and then to stormy weather, until Pym and the few survivors of the drifting, disabled vessel have to resort to cannibalism to stay alive.

Eventually, Pym and the only other survivor, the brawny Dirk Peters (“the son of an Indian squaw of the tribe of Upsarokas, who live among the fastnesses of the Black Hills, near the source of the Missouri…[whose] father was a fur-trader,” sounding the novel’s themes of race and anxiety over racial proximity) are picked up by the Jane Guy, a ship bound on an exploratory journey toward the South Pole. Pym records many geographical, geological, nautical, biological and other observations on this scientific mission, which he dutifully reproduces (as Poe reproduced them from his nonfictional sources) for the reader.

Then the novel departs entirely from realism as the crew encounters a fantastical tribe of black islanders, who seem friendly at first; but the islanders observe a taboo concerning all things white, including white men, which leads them to attempt to massacre the explorers. Eventually, Pym, Peters, and Nu-Nu, a native of the island (called Tsalal), escape to the Antarctic Ocean and drift toward the South Pole, a region of perfect whiteness (as Tsalal had been a place of omnipresent blackness). Pym’s narrative famously, mysteriously concludes with this:

Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our vision. Hereupon Nu-Nu stirred in the bottom of the boat; but upon touching him we found his spirit departed. And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.

Following which conclusion, a strange editorial note informs us that Pym, who had somehow survived his Antarctic sojourn, has died in an accident in the United States before finishing his narrative; then the editor makes some crytographical observations about cave markings Pym had recored on Tsalal, so that we are given to understand the islanders, who speak a vaguely Hebraic language that is also reminiscent of Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Arabic, as perhaps an ur-tribe of humanity keeping at bay the white inhuman mystery at the bottom of the world.

When summarized, Pym/Poe’s narrative sounds thrillingly bizarre, but in execution, it is tedious hodgepodge of disparate elements, thickened for pages at a time with endless nautical and other detail probably meant to contribute to the book’s “hoaxing” element (the inveterate hoaxer Poe perhaps wanted, like his model Defoe, to convince readers this was a real memoir) and possibly even to pad out the length, given Poe’s aversion to (and apparent incompetence at) long-form writing. In his “Philosophy of Composition” (1846), Poe argues for the aesthetic primacy of the lyric and the tale over the epic and the novel, since the latter forms are too long to be read at one sitting and thus to have a unified effect on the reader:

If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with any thing that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones — that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such, only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating, the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least one half of the “Paradise Lost” is essentially prose — a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions — the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity, of effect.

It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art — the limit of a single sitting — and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as “Robinson Crusoe,” (demanding no unity,) this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem.

However dubious we might find this as a universal literary theory, it certainly applies to the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, whose intensely affecting sequences (the Grampus mutiny, the subsequent cannibalism among the abandoned survivors, the Jane Guy‘s encounter with the Tsalal islanders, the strange journey to the South Pole) could be cut out of the main body of the text and re-arranged as a cycle of brief short stories. Poe’s model, though, was Robinson Crusoe, which “demand[s] no unity,” and so he provided none to his haphazard narrative.

To put my judgment on Poe’s only novel with maximal bluntness: we would probably not now be reading The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym if it did not have Poe’s name on it; it is a lax production even by the standards of the early nineteenth century, when only a small handful of people (mainly Goethe, Jane Austen, and Stendhal) had figured out how to write a novel as a unified artistic composition that would not bore the discriminating readers of the future to death.

Even so, the book’s manifest flaws have not prevented critics from finding all manner of allegory in Pym’s narrative. Today its most salient theme is that of race. One of the narrative’s precipitating events is a shipboard rebellion led by a bloodhirsty black cook; the annotations to my edition direct us at that point to the recency of Nat Turner’s rebellion and its probably importance to Poe and his audience as Southerners. The editors fall silent when the mysterious black tribe on Tsalal island replays the rebellion near the novel’s conclusion, almost burying Pym and a crew of sailors alive in a black chasm, thus raising the fear of slave rebellion to a global and existential matter wherein there is always the potential for whiteness to be swamped by blackness. Pym the white man survives the islanders’ attack, however, only to confront, at the novel’s abrupt ending, the mysterious white giant at the South Pole.

This mute whiteness, signifying the end of life and meaning, is both transcendence and the peace of death; while blackness in the novel evokes vitality and the violence of life. (This is Toni Morrison’s gloss on Poe’s novel in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.) Poe is in effect mapping a metaphysical Platonic hierarchy onto a racial one derived from antebellum ideology, where whiteness is the unreachable bodiless goal of the striving soul and blackness the materiality of life that immures the soul and keeps it from its communion with the pure and ineffable. It must have been this fleshless white communion that entranced some in the avant-garde (though not Baudelaire or Dostoevsky or Kafka), inspiring their visions of mute poems about the absent Ideal, but the restive Poe is always half on the side of the rebellious and clamorous life he cannot keep himself from depicting.

As in “Ligeia,” where the awful, awesome life force overruns death (and a dark woman supplants a fair one) in a beautifully cloying atmosphere of strange and erotic sensuality, as in “The Cask of Amontillado,” where the decaying aristocrat Montresor uses the tools and the weapons of his enemy, the freethinking Freemason arriviste Fortunato, to accomplish his counter-revolutionary revenge in an act of murderous—what else?—masonry, Poe is all irony and reversal, all allegory and depth psychology. If he is more interesting than many of his successors on Parnassus or in the pulps, it is because he means more than they do, can be read more than they can, and is, in spite of himself, more akin to his own figuration of blackness than he seems.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Toni Morrison, Sula

SulaSula by Toni Morrison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sula is an anarchic novel and a conservative one. Toni Morrison, because she is a sort of multicultural figurehead, passes herself off as (and tends to be received as) some kind of left-liberal; and her later fiction—notably Paradise and A Mercy, both of which tend to de-emphasize race/culture in favor of gender and class, respectively—approaches such a universalist politics. But her writing at its most intense is in the Romantic and modernist traditions of pitting an almost mythicized collective or communal culture against a technological and material progress that extirpates tradition and blunts intense experience. There is no reason why she should not belong to such a broad and rebelliously conservative school of aesthetics, one that encompasses figures as diverse in time, place, and sensibility as Wordsworth and Tanizaki; but in the U.S., when conservatives want to conserve a culture other than that of white people, they tend to be interpreted, understandably, as belonging to the political left. On the other hand, Morrison’s taste for anarchy renders Sula something other than merely nostalgic or nationalistic or reactionary.

Sula‘s two themes, the anarchic and the conservative, run on parallel tracks: the novel is the story of a neighborhood and also a lament over the waning, during the postwar economic boom and the push for integration, of black people’s unique cultural expression and tolerance for eccentricity; and it is also the story of its eponymous heroine, Sula Peace, and her destructive and self-destructive behavior toward her family and toward her best friend, the more “normal” young woman, Nel.

While Morrison hardly denies that racist exclusion—including, crushingly, economic exclusion—structures and necessitates the African-American cultural inventiveness she celebrates, she nevertheless sees its passing as a loss. There is even a slight suggestion in Sula that oppression makes communities and individuals interesting—that the merely happy and prosperous are contemptible. One sees what Morrison means, or at least I do, but as a politics this is either null (aestheticism, best left to fiction or poetry) or dangerous (fascism, a call to collective sacrifice and struggle against decadent, impure, effete others—white people, yes, but it has always seemed to me that the pejorative use of the racial epithet “white” often attracts the prejudicial associations that attach to “gay” and “Jewish” as well).

Sula is largely set between World Wars I and II in The Bottom, a black neighborhood in the Ohio town of Medallion. The town dates back to when a slave-owner tricked a freed slave into accepting, as recompense for work performed, hard-to-farm hill-land because, the master assured him, it was “the bottom of heaven.” The novel begins with a prologue, which Morrison disowns as making too many concessions to the befuddled white reader in her 2004 preface, that introduces and eulogizes the town:

In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom. One road, shaded by beeches, oaks, maples and chestnuts, connected it to the valley. The beeches are gone now, and so are the pear trees where children sat and yelled down through the blossoms to passersby. Generous funds have been allotted to level the stripped and faded buildings that clutter the road from Medallion up to the golf course. They are going to raze the Time and a Half Pool Hall, where feet in long tan shoes once pointed down from chair rungs. A steel ball will knock to dust Irene’s Palace of Cosmetology, where women used to lean their heads back on sink trays and doze while Irene lathered Nu Nile into their hair. Men in khaki work clothes will pry loose the slats of Reba’s Grill, where the owner cooked in her hat because she couldn’t remember the ingredients without it.

Morrison’s strengths abound in this paragraph: the symbolism of a brilliant writer thoroughly educated in the good/bad old days of New Criticism and psychoanalysis (our heroines, one poisonous and one able to be consumed by the community, will correspond precisely to nightshade and blackberry, as Morisson herself points out in her essay, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken”); the fabulism (“there was once” setting the folkloric tone); the angry irony and satire (in those “[g]enerous funds” and that presumably exclusive golf course); and the praise, not simply of organic community as such—which would, as I noted, be mere fascism, to which Morrison descends in the less guarded moments of her early work—but of idiosyncrasy and particularity (“feet in long tan shoes,” “where the owner cooked in her hat”).

The town-as-character is the focus of Morrison’s conservative praise. When the shell-shocked veteran Shadrack comes home to the town from the Great War, he does not kill himself, like Woolf’s alienated urban Septimus (upon whom, among other things, Morrison wrote her master’s thesis in the 1950s). Instead, he institutes National Suicide Day, a day on which he rings a bell and carries a hangman’s noose through the town to invite the people to die and to remind them of death. Later, Morrison’s essayistic narrator informs us that the town does not seek to destroy evil but to recognize its necessity:

In their world, aberrations were as much as part of nature as grace. It was not for them to expel or annihilate it. They would no more run Sula out of town than they would kill the robins that brought her back, for in their secret awareness of Him, He was not the God of three faces they sang about. They knew quite well that He had four, and that the fourth explained Sula. They had lived with various forms of evil all their days, and it wasn’t that they believed God would take care of them. It was rather that they knew God had a brother and that brother hadn’t spared God’s son, so why should he spare them?

Note that Morrison seems to scare even herself here: she retracts the major heresy of this passage’s fifth sentence—in which the Devil is literally part and parcel of God, as much as Christ and the Holy Spirit—to commit the smaller heresy of saying that the Devil is God’s brother at the end of the paragraph.

At the novel’s conclusion, however, the town loses its anti-hero, Sula, who dies young, seemingly of boredom, after having “sung all the songs there are.” She was the evil against which the town had defined itself, and so, on National Suicide Day, the town does in fact commit suicide en masse in the process of destroying a bridge that the government had excluded black men from building by hiring whites, even recently-arrived immigrant whites. (This novel’s palpable resentment of the dominant culture’s economic preference for immigrants over African-Americans, and immigrants’ concomitant adoption of anti-black racism, may provide a warning about how the present-day Democratic Party coalition may be broken up by a canny manipulator—but let me desist, before this review, or indeed Sula itself, is sent as a memorandum to the Trump campaign.)

The novel’s epilogue is set in 1965, a year presented as regressive rather than progressive, a year in which Morrison portrays black people as losing themselves in idiotic materialism as American culture at large opts for a bright and grandiose technocracy that kills the specificity and communal character of experience:

Things were so much better in 1965. Or so it seemed. […] The young ones kept talking about the community, but they left the hills to the poor, the old, the stubborn—and the rich white folks. Maybe it hadn’t been a community, but it had been a place. Now there weren’t any places left, just separate houses with separate televisions and separate telephones and less and less dropping by.

If this sort of volkishness annoys you, then Sula, with its “evil conjure woman” bearing High John the Conquerer and (note that Morrison, who invented the next phrase, seems to think it’s funny too) “the Nine Herbs from Cincinnati” and its wise grandmothers who can read dreams, will indeed annoy you. But Morrison’s tone is sufficiently ironic to prevent an outright romance with “discredited knowledges”—Morrison both believes and she does not believe, a common enough condition for fiction writers, and she is above insulting her ancestors, which she regards as a symptom of white deracination and dehumanization (“White people didn’t fret about putting their old ones away”), like Crusoe alone on his island or Faust selling his soul for knowledge.

Sula is not all nostalgic, though—it is, as I said, also anarchic, a slim Nietzschean treatise, a counter-biblical book (The Book of Sula), on the necessity of self-creation and a totally amoral approach to life. The heroine is our anarchist. As Sula says when her grandmother tells her to have children, “I don’t want to make anybody else. I want to make myself.” In the middle of the novel, after Sula has cut off her own fingertip to scare away ill-intentioned white boys, after she has carelessly killed a child named Chicken Little, after she has watched with cool fascination as her mother caught fire and burned to death, and after she has caused her best friend’s marriage to break up, the narrator observes:

As willing to feel pain as to give pain, to feel pleasure as to give pleasure, hers was an experimental life–ever since her mother’s remarks [that she loved Sula but did not like her] sent her flying up those stairs, ever since her one major feeling of responsibility had been exorcised on the bank of a river with a closed place in the middle [where she drowned Chicken Little]. The first experience taught her there was no other that you could count on; the second that there was no self to count on either. She had no center, no speck around which to grow.

But the novel offers us an option for anarchy besides countenancing murderous or cruel behavior—a rather venerable alternative called art:

In a way, her strangeness, her naiveté, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.

Because aesthetic Sula’s evil—and she is evil, as you can see from my list of transgressions above—provides the town with a negative standard of comparison, she improves the town. She makes the women more attentive as mothers and the children better behaved and the men more appreciative of what they have. The novel’s thesis is that “culture” (conservatism) needs a little “art” (anarchy) on which to sharpen its blade: war, said Heraclitus, is the mother of all, and Blake moreover told us, in a proverb of Hell no less, that opposition is true friendship. When Sula’s ex-best-friend Nel realizes at the end what she has lost with the loss of Sula, it is the loss, I think, of excitement and vitality and interest in life, of the nearness of sex and death that alone inspire what orderliness we may aspire to.

Is anyone in the literary mainstream today writing novels this ideologically or morally daring? We may need fewer paeans to empathy and more defenses of evil. Sula makes a marvelously offensive prophecy on her deathbed about when she will be loved; perhaps contemporary novelists might model their future stories upon its ruthlessly amoral vision:

“After all the old women have lain with the teen-agers; when all the young girls have slept with their old drunken uncles; after all the black men fuck all the white ones; when all the white women kiss all the black ones; when the guards have raped all the jailbirds and after all the whores make love to their grannies; after all the faggots get their mothers’ trim; when Lindbergh sleeps with Bessie Smith and Norma Shearer makes it with Stepin Fetchit; after all the dogs have fucked all the cats and every weathervane on every barn flies off the roof to mount the hogs…then there’ll be a little love left over for me.”

I love the brevity of this novel, really a novella. Anyone else would have bored us with 800 pages, given that this is a family saga, a bildungsroman, and the epic of a whole community all in one, which covers half a century. But Morrison weighs her words; she alternates between rich description and explanation (she’ll tell rather than show if she pleases) and passages of coruscating dialogue (modeled on the stichomythia of Greek tragedy—Morrison, recall, was a classics major). Some of it is thinly realized, but I think that is a risk worth taking: folk tales are short, too, but everyone remembers them.

I love the humor of this novel—does anyone ever observe that Morrison is funny? But the whole novel, with its Chicken Little and its National Suicide Day and its violent family named Peace, is sly and droll: she knows she writes narratives of old-time excess in an exsanguinated world, and her tongue is never totally out of her cheek. I love this novel’s audacity, its inventiveness—its two immolations, its one quasi-inadvertent child murder, its collective suicide. (What can I say?—I think exciting things should happen in fiction.) I love its at times hair-raising frankness, which would not be acceptable at all in today’s literary community, as when Sula makes a little speech, which I will not quote so as to spare readers’ sensitivities, wherein she mentions, en passant, what she believes to be white women’s desire to be violated by black men. Shocked? Offended? Yes, she means to offend: she means to remind us of the necessity of evil—a concept that is at least worth contemplating, anyway, since evil does not seem to be going anywhere. Is there some occasional sentimental overwriting? There usually is in Morrison—

Then they left their pews. For with some emotions one has to stand. They spoke, for they were full and needed to say. They swayed, for the rivulets of grief or ecstasy must be rocked.

But there is more of the following—sublime event, precise description: what makes fiction what it is.

She rolled up to the window and it was then she saw Hannah burning. The flames from the yard fire were licking the blue cotton dress, making her dance. Eva knew there was time for nothing in this world other than the time it took to get there and cover her daughter’s body with her own. She lifted her heavy frame up on her good leg, and with fists and arms smashed the windowpane. Using her stump as a support on the window sill, her good leg as a lever, she threw herself out of the window. Cut and bleeding she clawed the air trying to aim her body toward the flaming, dancing figure. She missed and came crashing down some twelve feet from Hannah’s smoke. Stunned but still conscious, Eva dragged herself toward her firstborn, but Hannah, her senses lost, went flying out of the yard gesturing and bobbing like a sprung jack-in-the-box.

Mr. and Mrs. Suggs, who had set up their canning apparatus in their front yard, saw her running, dancing toward them. They whispered, “Jesus, Jesus,” and together hoisted up their tub of water in which tight red tomatoes floated and threw it on the smoke-and-flame-bound woman. The water did put out the flames, but it also made steam, which seared to sealing all that was left of the beautiful Hannah Peace. She lay there on the wooden sidewalk planks, twitching lightly among the smashed tomatoes, her face a mask of agony so intense that for years the people who gathered ’round would shake their heads at the recollection of it.


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Franzen and His Enemies

[I wrote this almost two years ago, in September of 2013, and posted it to Tumblr in response to the waves of Franzenfreude then breaking over the Internet, occasioned by the publication of excerpts from The Kraus Project (which I have browsed through but never read cover to cover). As the tides swell again, I thought it might be useful, if blog entries are useful, to repost it here, very lightly edited, as I patiently wait for Purity to appear on my apartment’s mail ledge.]

I don’t mean to be a passionate Franzen defender.  I’m ambivalent about the man—and about the controversial essay.  In fact, I’ve derogated him in print, at the conclusion to my review of Blake Butler’s wretched Sky Saw (not online but available here on paper). In my view, Franzen’s investment in the social novel is a betrayal of his natural talent, leading him to follow his realist models in producing overly long books full of ephemeral details (e.g., the references to Bright Eyes from Freedom) that bury his brilliant portrayal of characters in conflict.

As for the controversial essay, well, for one thing, I’m not even remotely persuaded of his claim for Latin/Germanic split with regard to Mac vs. PC—surely, if we’re just going to accede to these ancient stereotypes, then Mac represents Germanic efficiency and Nordic design streamlining (e.g. Helvetica, Ikea, etc.) rather than Franco-Italian baroque and sunny opulence.  Mac vs. PC is probably two anti-aesthetic hyper-ascetic North Atlantic visions duking it out, rather like capitalism vs. Marxism in their pure (murderous, soul-killing) forms.  Perhaps we have not yet seen a Mediterranean machine.

On the larger question, is his animus against the Internet overblown? To a point—I like blogs and Tumblr, loathe and detest Twitter, don’t much like Facebook but don’t see the big deal about it either, and don’t especially like smart phones or e-readers but think they can have their place. What really tends to lend support to Franzen’s hatred of the Internet, though, is the Internet’s response to Franzen.

The exaggerated reaction to his essay encapsulates a tendency of Internet debate, especially among the Twitterati and those invested in the very concept thereof, to fall into careless reading, knee-jerk condemnation of pre-approved enemies, and those grating excesses of satirical and sarcastic venom that effectively strip the critical object of any claim on seriousness. What’s wrong with these traits? Why take a complex and earnest but sometimes faulty argument seriously at all? Let’s just righteously mock it! But if Franzen’s critics will permit me to quote another “German essayist who is now dead,” here is Erich Auerbach, chased out of Germany by the Nazis, explaining how Voltaire’s very proto-Internet rhetorical tendencies in the eighteenth century conduce toward a fascist worldview (from Mimesis, chapter 16):

[Voltaire’s satirical technique] might be called the searchlight device.  It consists in overilluminating one small part of an extensive complex, while everything which might explain, derive, and possibly counterbalance the thing emphasized is left in the dark so that apparently the truth is stated, for what is said cannot be denied; and yet everything is falsified, for truth requires the whole truth and the proper interrelation of its elements.  Especially in times of excited passions, the public is again and again taken in by such tricks, and everybody knows more than enough examples from the very recent past [i.e., the WWII era].


But he is always inclined to simplify, and his simplification is always handled in such a way that the role of sole standard of judgment is assigned to sound, practical common sense (the type of enlightened reason which began to come to the fore during his time and under his influence) and that from among the conditions which determine the course of human lives none but the material and natural are given serious consideration.  Everything historical and spiritual he despises and neglects.

Compare that to this:

Think of all the women who have never slept with Jonathan Franzen. His anger must grow by the day. Soon it will envelop the world, and we will be forced to bow down in chains before it, and create ziggurats out of human corpses as terrible tribute. Some of these women who Failed To Fuck Jonathan Franzen might now be on Twitter, which is wrong because of a German essayist who is now dead.

It’s interesting that a man’s candid admission of his youthful petulant hostility toward women, which we might regard as signaling his mature recognition of his own growth as well as clear-eyed assessment of the sources of his least creditable traits, is dismissed, seventh-grade style, as basically just “creepy.” One begins to think that in the realm of the sarcasteurs the political points are a red herring and the real crime is simply to have shown unaffected emotion at all. For the links between that and totalitarian thought, I will keep silent and refer you to Auerbach above.

Then consider the  charge, laid in the New York Times blog, that Franzen is wrong in his criticisms due to envy over his low literary status compared to Toni Morrison (and some others too—Roth, Bellow, etc.); it is this envy that may lead him to make such curmudgeonly remarks about technology, pop culture, and/or gender:

Mr. Franzen may despise the ephemeral social-media slipstream that conveniently blasted news of his book out into the world. But how much is timeless dead-tree literary discourse really paying attention to him or other literary novelists of his generation?

Perhaps not much, a graphic posted on Twitter over the weekend by the critic and novelist Kurt Andersen suggests.


According to the Ngram, Mr. Franzen, at 54 the youngest on the list, has garnered fewer mentions than any of the other novelists, and significantly fewer than Updike or Mailer had by the same age. And compared with mentions for Toni Morrison, 82, the most-cited novelist in the chart by far, his fever line is more of a flatline.

So let us compare the two authors’ views on technology/pop culture and gender to see if relative literary status affects one’s opinions on these matters. Here are Toni Morrison’s thoughts on pop culture from an interview with the Telegraph in 2012; if Franzen is archaic for preferring novels to the Internet, what does it make Morrison for preferring cathedrals to reality TV?—

“When you think about the churches, cathedrals,” she begins, “that’s art – there’s a narrative. Good story. Lovely music. There’s decoration. There’s costume. It’s all there. It’s very impressive.

“The pop stuff – it’s – it’s so low. People used to stand around and watch lynchings. And clap and laugh and have picnics. And they used to watch hangings. We don’t do that anymore. But we do watch these other car crashes.”

And on gender, I cannot even begin to imagine the outrage that would have ensued had Franzen written the following three paragraphs, in which Toni Morrison, introducing her edited volume, Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case, summarily and contemptuously dismisses as “wildly irresponsible” the feminist axiom that women should never be understood to have invited domestic violence or sexual assault:

Another issue the official story both exposed and blanketed is the matter of domestic abuse, by which is meant the physical harm males do to females—the reverse being rare, warranted, a joke or all three. There are patently excessive responses to these claims. A six-year-old boy was suspended for kissing a girl classmate on the cheek (prompting the question of whether expulsion would have been the consequence if she had kissed him). And there are undoubtedly some fabrications, abuse being the easiest and most effective claim in divorce settlements. But the more recent understandings of the law and the unassailable argument of men and women who trying to get the general population and the courts to take this issue seriously lead toward one conclusion: a female must not be physically accosted by a male under any circumstances—excepting a demonstrable threat to his or somebody’s life. That means whatever the reasons, there are no excuses. If she curses him, humiliates him or degrades him, he must not hit her. If she betrays him with another sexual partner, he must not hit her. If she abuses his children or burns his supper; wrecks his car or chops off his penis; whether he is shooting up, messing up or cleaning up, he must not hit her. Why? Because he is stronger. The power relationship is unequal. (Except when she is armed.)

As for sexual assault, the thinking is similar. Rape is a criminal act whatever the circumstances. A woman riding the subway nude may be guilty of indecency but she may not be raped. If she invites or even sells sex at 10:00 and refuses it at 10:45, the partner who disregards her refusal and forces sex is guilty of rape.  If she is drunk, asleep, mentally defective, paralyzed or dead, she must not be raped. Why? Because sexual congress must be by consent. And males are stronger.

Trying to ensure that view has been difficult partly because the masculinist side of the debate (She was “asking” for it) still pervades, but also because in the negotiation of power, the physical strength and the allegedly uncontrollable sexual hunger of males are seen as unequalizing factors. The popular counterargument that concerns female responsibility in these matters of power is a subversive, almost treasonable one. Men must be retrained and socialized into non-aggressive, respectful behavior. But women, whose historically repressive social education has been ruthless and whose self-esteem has been systematically plundered, are understood to have no responsibility. As long as the wildly irresponsible claim of “It doesn’t matter what she does” is the answer to the helpless idiocy of “She made me do it,” the complicity in power/abuse relationships will be unaddressed. It does matter what she does. And she can’t make you.

The Internet would crash, overwhelmed with fury, if Franzen wrote of a hypothetical rape victim that “It does matter what she does”!

These periodic controversies over Franzen—with whom, again, I do not agree on many issues—remind me of Susan Sontag’s viciously-received plea for nuance in the wake of 9/11: “let’s not be stupid together.” By the terms of this analogy, the (mostly left-wing) Twitterati must remind me of the (mostly right-wing) “watch what you say” patriotism police of the early post-9/11 days. And so they do.

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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Gayl Jones, Corregidora

CorregidoraCorregidora by Gayl Jones

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 GarpCorregidora 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.

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