You think dark is just one color, but it ain’t. There’re five or six kinds of black. Some silky, some woolly. Some just empty. Some like fingers. And it don’t stay still, it moves and changes from one kind of black to another. Saying something is pitch black is like saying something is green. What kind of green? Green like my bottles? Green like a grasshopper? Green like a cucumber, lettuce, or green like the sky is just before it breaks loose to storm? Well, night black is the same way. May as well be a rainbow.
The great American writer Toni Morrison died yesterday at the age of 88. Morrsion was a writer, academic, teacher, and playwright (among many other things), but will likely be best remembered for her eleven novels, which include Beloved (1987), The Bluest Eye (1970), and most recently God Help the Child (2015). Morrison’s slim essay collection Playing in the Dark (1992) remains a standard in college classrooms.
Playing in the Dark was probably the first thing I read by Morrison. I read it more than 20 years ago in a college classroom, and it was one of the first works of cultural criticism I’d read. I think I was probably too young to fully appreciate its scope, but I’ve since used elements of it (as well as Morrison’s essay on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) in my own classes many times. Beloved, which I read around the same time, also as an undergraduate, had a more profound, visceral effect on me.
While Beloved, a mature exercise published when the author was in her fifties, is likely to be the book most people associate with Morrison, her early novels are especially compelling. The Bluest Eye is a study in abjection, painful, rich, fertile. The follow up, Sula (1973), centers on a black township in Ohio in the thirties. It’s also a painful and beautifully-written novel. Song of Solomon (1977) is maybe my favorite Morrison novel. Its protagonist Milkman Dead remains one of her most complex and memorable figures. I tend to think of these three early novels as a fecund trilogy, the rich base from which Morrison’s themes of race, memory, location, family, identity, and love continued to grow. These themes continued throughout her works, notably Beloved, of course, as well as Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997). Morrison’s later works are perhaps underread or understudied compared to her early and middle period, but her 2008 novel A Mercy is a particularly focused and strong exploration of the myth of early America. It remains one of my favorites by Morrison. Morrison published two novels after: Home (2012) and God Help the Child. She also wrote the libretto for the opera Margaret Garner (2005), who was the historical inspiration for Beloved. Days after the 2016 election, Morrison published “Making America White Again” in The New Yorker.
A documentary film about her life, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is in theaters now.
Book shelves series #23, twenty-third Sunday of 2012
Okay. So, a bit later than usual getting this in. It’s the daughter’s birthday and I’m recovering from a Saturday party and I’ve been out in the garden other day and some other excuses.
Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Harry Crews, Flannery O’Connor—and then some books that seem misshelved. Calvino used to hang out with Umberto Eco but that shelf got too crowded. The John Barth should be with the other John Barth books, but they’re all mass market paperbacks in shabby condition.
I like the cover of the Breece D’J Pancake collection:
Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales is this secret awesome book that almost no one has read. It was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog and the review is so woefully short that I’ll just cut and paste it below:
In a sublime synthesis of traditional folklore and imagistic surrealism, Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales questions the normative spaces occupied by bodies. Deriving from animist tradition, her characters exist in an impossible multiplicity of spaces, being at once animals and plants, humans and gods. Cabrera’s characters endure trials of biological identity and social co-existence, and through these problems they internalize authority, evince taboos, and create a social code. Cabrera’s trickster characters provoke, challenge, or otherwise disrupt the symbolic order of this code. In “Bregantino Bregantín,” a story that recalls Freud’s primal horde theory, as well as the work of more contemporary theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler, narcissist Bull kills all the males of his kingdom and takes all the women for himself. The sadistic titular turtle of “Papa Turtle and Papa Tiger” uses the power of his dead friend’s antlers to shame, torment, and torture the other animals of his community. And in the magical realism of “Los Compadres,” Capinche seeks to put the horns on his best friend Evaristo by sleeping with his wife–a transgression that ends in necrophilia. This union of sex and death, creation and destruction is the norm in Cabrera’s green and fecund world; the trickster’s displacements of order invariably result in reanimation, transformation, and regeneration—the drawing, stepping-over, and re-drawing of boundaries.
777 seems like a beautiful enough number to celebrate, and because we’re terribly lazy, let’s celebrate by sharing reviews of seven of our favorite novels that have been published since this blog started back in the hoary yesteryear of 2006. In (more or less) chronological order–
The Road — Cormac McCarthy —That ending gets me every time. The first ending, I mean, the real one, the one between the father and son, not the tacked on wish-fulfillment fantasy after it. Avoid the movie.
A Mercy — Toni Morrison –Slender and profound, A Mercy should be required reading for all students of American history. Or maybe just all Americans.
Tree of Smoke — Denis Johnson — Nobody knew we needed another novel about the Vietnam War and then Johnson went and showed us that we did. But it’s fair to say his book is about more than that; it’s an espionage thriller about the human soul.
2666 — Roberto Bolaño — How did he do it? Maybe it was because he was dying, his life-force transferred to the page. Words as viscera. God, the blood of the thing. 2666 is both the labyrinth and the minotaur.
Asterios Polyp — David Mazzucchelli — We laughed, we cried, and oh god that ending, right? Wait, you haven’t read Asterios Polyp yet? Is that because it’s a graphic novel, a, gasp, comic book? Go get it. Read it. Come back. We’ll wait.
C — Tom McCarthy — Too much has been made over whether McCarthy’s newest novel (out in the States next week) is modernist or Modernist or post-modernist or avant-garde or whatever–these are dreadfully boring arguments when stacked against the book itself, which is complex, rich, enriching, maddening.
In this week’s issue of The New YorkerJudith Thurman reports on the literary hoaxes of Tommaso Debenedetti, an Italian “journalist” who has apparently fabricated dozens of interviews with famous authors in the paper Il Piccolo. Authors–so far–include Philip Roth, John Grisham, Gunter Grass, Toni Morrison, Herta Müller, Nadine Gordimer (Thurman is continuing to investigate Debedenetti’s archival interviews).
Thurman contacted Debenedetti, who denied that he faked the interviews. From the article:
Debenedetti said he was completely “shocked and saddened” that all these writers would have denied the veracity of his reporting. When I asked him about the interviews with Roth and Grisham, he flatly denied having invented them, and told me that Roth and Grisham were lying for “political” reasons—because their views on Obama would make them unpopular with left-leaning intellectuals. Roth, he added, might have decided that it was impolitic to express hostility toward Obama because it might spoil his chances for the Nobel.
I then read the list of other writers who had denied or questioned his conversations with them. In every case, Debenedetti asserted that he had invented nothing. When I asked if he could produce any recordings or notes from his interviews, he laughed and, admitting that it sounded like a “tired” excuse, told me that he had lost the tapes in some cases, and in others had “thrown them away.”
We read many, many books this year, but most of the books we read–especially the very best ones–were not published this year. And as usual, we’re always playing catch up. Case in point: we finally finished Roberto Bolaño’s much-lauded-in-2007 hit The Savage Detectives just last month, and despite feeling that it was kinda overrated we couldn’t help picking up his much-lauded-in-2008 hit 2666 at Green Apple Books in San Francisco this weekend (sidebar that will not surprise any San Francisco reader: San Francisco has the best book shops. Sick). So, we will spend at least the first part of 2009 getting through that massive tome.
Bar none, the best book we read in 2008 was Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian, published back in 1985. So good we read it twice, and so should you. We also loved loved loved Philip Pullman’s Nietzschean sci-fi trilogy His Dark Materials. Finally, we must highly recommend E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, which we finally got around to reading this year (last week, so, no review). This book is great, and you will wonder why you haven’t read it before now. A somewhat neglected classic. But. Let us move on.
There were a couple of fantastic highlights in 2008, of course, most notably Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, a novel on which we cannot heap enough praise. In a time of overstuffed, overlong novels, A Mercy is rich and complex yet lean at just over 170 pages, and, as many critics and reviewers have pointed out, the novel serves as a touching counterpoint for her 1988 masterpiece Beloved.
We also loved–and frequently returned to–Slavoj Žižek’s Violence, a work of cultural criticism that managed to be fun and infuriating and serious and frivolous at the same time. Too often reviewers fall back on hackneyed phrases like “thought provoking,” but Žižek’s work really is provoking, often to the point of confrontation. Like Plato, Nietzsche, and Derrida before him, Žižek is the gadfly, the upsetter, the spoiler. He has earned his haters.
We’d also be remiss not to give props (again) to Wendell Berry’s essay “Faustian Economics,” published in the May, 2008 issue of Harper’s. Berry’s piece is beautiful and sad and timely, and everyone should read it. It was one of the best things we read all year. Speaking of Harper’s, the latest issue includes–along with a touching memorial to critic John Leonard, who died last month–the remarks of those who spoke (including Zadie Smith and Don DeLillo) at David Foster Wallace’s memorial service this October. Wallace’s suicide was and is awful, and remarking on it in a “Best of 2008” section seems tacky, but we can’t help it. We love his work and are sad that there won’t be any more, or at least much more, or at least any “finished” work from the man, but, as George Saunders puts it in his portion of the memorial: “In time–but not yet–the sadness that there will be no new stories from him will be replaced by a deepening awareness of what a treasure we have in the existing work.” So, if we remark on DFW here, it is only because he was one of the best, and he died this year, and in some sense, we need to remark on it yet again, despite having writtentoomuchalready.
But let’s not end on a sad or sour note. Plenty of great reads in 2008, and surely we neglected a tome or three in this rehash, but hey, we’re human, we err, etc. We look forward to more reading in 2009, and perhaps, improbably (we lie to ourselves, who doesn’t though?) we may actually defeat that stack of books by the bed, on the night stand, on the coffee table.
With her latest novel A Mercy, Toni Morrison offers up more evidence of why she is possibly America’s greatest living author. As in earlier works like Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved, in A Mercy Morrison examines the strange intersections of race and geography, family and culture, memory and storytelling. And like those great novels before it, at the center of A Mercy (a center, mind you that Morrison frequently works to decenter) is that great post-modern question: what is identity?
The late-seventeenth-century America of A Mercy is at once paradoxically both alien and familiar. This America is seemingly wild and free and unconstrained, yet the land–purchased with the blood of the native Indians–is worked by slaves and indentured servants. The freedom to be viciously intolerant of anyone else’s religion abounds. A lazy eye might get you burned for a witch. Life is cheap and difficult, but there is also much beauty here, and for a time, the makeshift family of characters who populate A Mercy seems happy enough. Morrison’s genius in this novel, however, is to only present these moments of contentment and happiness in fragments, interspersed between each of her character’ desires for freedom, future, family, and ultimately, self. We see glimpses of one character’s joys or sufferings through the eyes of another character, a technique that builds and layers and enriches a narrative where, honestly, very little happens. A farmer-turned-trader gets sick and dies, never finishing the house he was building. Then his wife gets sick, and sends her young slave to get the blacksmith, a free black man, who she believes can heal her. By the time he arrives, she’s better, but her ersatz family is forever sundered. Summarized, the linear plot sounds thin, but the depth of storytelling around Morrison’s deceptively simple story is marvelous. Morrison achieves this depth via the different voices and perspectives that propel her novel.
The voice of the young enslaved girl Florens initiates the novel with the enigmatic opening line, “Don’t be afraid.” Her opening command both engages and disorients (and, sign of a great novel, begs to be read again after completing the book). “Stranger things happen all the time everywhere,” she recognizes, before asking “One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read?” Right away, Morrison tells us this a novel about how to read, where to find cause, and possibly, how to create one’s own agency in a world that makes slaves and servants–or food–out of almost everybody.
This question of agency runs throughout each of the chapters that alternate with Florens’s first person narrative. There’s Jacob Vaark, who takes Florens as part of a debt owed him by a fading aristocrat. Vaark is disgusted at the aristocrat’s lavish lifestyle, and although the slave trade repels him – “God help me if this is not the most wretched business” – he agrees to take Florens at the pleading of her mother (Florens will be haunted forever by what she interprets as abandonment). Vaark is, however, smitten by the slaver’s elaborate house and vows to build one just as grand. His attempt to build a castle from his own labor in the New World, a castle free from any title or rank or order is his own claim to agency. There’s also the voice of his wife Rebekkah, who spends her chapter in a pox-ridden fever dream that dips and floats and weaves through time and space. Her father essentially sells her mail-order to Jacob. She leaves the dirty, crowded Old World on a dirty, crowded ship. Stuck in dark steerage, she makes a community with a group of whores, “Women of and for men,” who, in transit, exist in a strange uncomfortable comfort, a “blank where a past did not haunt nor a future beckon.” Rebekkah will attempt to forge another strange, transitory family when she arrives in America. She grows quickly to love Jacob; soon, she even loves Lina, the enslaved Indian girl Jacob buys for both pity and service. Lina and Rebekkah forge an alliance, weathering the death of the Vaark’s children, as well as Jacob’s extended absences as he expands his trade. They are less ready to accept another foundling, Sorrow, who Jacob brings home (solely for pity); a little bit crazy (“daft”), she spends much of the novel mysteriously pregnant. However, Lina quickly warms to Florens, treating her as her own daughter, even if Rebekkah will not. Also there are Scully and Willard, two indentured servants who may never gain their freedom. Willard imagines the family they all comprise: “A good-hearted couple (parents), and three female servants (sisters, say) and them helpful sons.” But it’s not family, or community, or the idea of a country that A Mercy will validate. Instead, the novel suggests these concepts are ultimately transitory–like a passage over the Atlantic–and that there can only be a claiming of self.
Throughout the book, some characters gain agency, others die trying, and several lose themselves to grief and loss. But it’s Florens’s narrative that binds the text. She grows from a lovesick kid, desperate to please everyone, to a realized person with a conscious sense of her self. “The beginning begins with the shoes,” she says. “When a child I am never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody’s shoes.” By the end of the novel she can go barefoot, free, in a sense, the soles of her feet “hard as cypress” – and this New World requires hard soles. And even if Morrison suggests that we need to learn to walk, hard-soled on our own feet, there is a great pleasure–a sad, sometimes sour, shocking pleasure–to be gained in walking for just a little while in these characters’ shoes. Very highly recommended.
John Leonard, a widely influential and enduringly visible cultural critic known for the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his inquiries and the lavish passion of his prose, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 69 and lived in Manhattan. . . .
As a critic, Mr. Leonard was far less interested in saying yea or nay about a work of art than he was in scrutinizing the who, the what and the why of it. His writing opened a window onto the contemporary American scene, examining a book or film or television show as it was shaped by the cultural winds of the day.
Amid the thicket of book galleys he received each week, Mr. Leonard often spied glimmers that other critics had not yet noticed. He was known as an early champion of a string of writers who are now household names, among them Mary Gordon, Maxine Hong Kingston and the Nobel Prize winners Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez.
Mr. Leonard’s prose was known not only for its erudition, but also for its sheer revelry in the sounds and sentences of English. Stylistic hallmarks included wit, wordplay, a carefully constructed acerbity and a syntax so unabashedly baroque that some readers found it overwhelming. The comma seemed to have been invented expressly for him.
I’ve subscribed to Harper’s for about a decade now, and in that time John Leonard’s “New Books” column has been not only one of my favorite features of the magazine, but also an inspirational guide on how to review a book. Leonard knew how to show why a book mattered; he also knew how to capture the essence of not just the plot but the author’s style in just a few short lines–something that’s really, really tough to do. I read one of Leonard’s last reviews, a write up of Toni Morrison’s latest A Mercy in this month’s Harper’s, just last Monday to a group of my high school students who were interested in Morrison’s work. The review made one of them say: “I want to read that book.” I think there is no higher compliment for any critic. John Leonard will be missed.
I thought this notation, from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, was too beautiful not to share (also, I’ve been too busy to write and appropriating the words of Nobel prize winners seems like an easy alternative to actually, y’know, coming up with original content). Context unimportant:
She was the third beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it’s there, because it can’t hurt, and because what difference does it make?