Of course, I doubted her, and she read it on my brow. But she had no doubt, just rock-solid faith and the voice of a siren. So she showed me how. She surrendered to inspiration, and all the power of the earth around us gathered at her feet. She didn't even jump, she let the earth throw her over the hills and woods.
My brow rose with her. How could I believe my eyes? But how could I doubt? So I surrendered to the spectacle, as she flew higher than the flocks above, as she grew smaller in the cerulean distance. A gleaming darkness against the falling sun, on her way to places I could barely imagine.
The sky would run out, but I didn't fear for her. That voice could make fresh air to breathe, through the long dark night, the sparkling emptiness, the space beyond. Toni had willed herself a rocket ship, and set out for distant planets, that had never yet been explored, or written in books. She overflowed with mind, heart, faith and voice, and had no use for doubt. She surrendered to the burning energy of her entire self.
Morrison done fly away,
Morrison done gone,
Morrison cut across the sky,
Morrison gone home.
Toni Morrison is one of our greatest American Novelists, perhaps the most significant of the last half century. If you haven't read any of her books, you should: they are deep, sometimes wrenching but often beautiful, and powerfully crafted. Song of Solomon and Beloved earned the most prizes and plaudits. I found Beloved devastating - so I recommend Song of Solomon as a good place to start. Both Barack and Michelle Obama have called it their favorite book.
I found Song of Solomon a formidable, but enjoyable and very rewarding, read. It has 350 pages - none of them bored me. But the book asked a lot of me: complete attention, full mental and emotional commitment. Morrison mentions details in passing, and expects you to recall them 200 pages later. She's weaving a complex tapestry, and it won't get finished unless you join wholeheartedly in the work.
"I want to write for people like me, which is to say black people, curious people, demanding people - people who can't be faked, people who don't need to be patronized, people who have very, very high criteria." - Toni MorrisonIn a way, this novel reminded me of the book in the Bible that it's named for. The biblical Song of Solomon is full of charm, sensuality, love and wisdom. But it does not always come across as clear and direct storytelling. I felt that I was not supposed merely to read the plot, but also to resonate with all its depths and implications.
Morrison's Song of Solomon is full of relationships, history, many interconnections and contrasting perspectives. The most central thread is the tale of a boy growing to manhood, then into his full self - just as Their Eyes Were Watching God told us the whole journey of Janie's outer and inner development. Somehow, alongside her bildungsroman, Morrison craftily squeezed two more books into the same space. I'll unpack some of that extraness later in this diary. I found Morrison's book more impressive, but Hurston's had a more natural, enchanting grace. If Hurston sang like Ella Fitzgerald, then Morrison sings like Aretha Franklin.
The boy who grows up in Song of Solomon is called Milkman Dead (whence the band took their name). Morrison loves digging into family history and the backstory of names, so we discover pieces of the meaning of both these names, spread through the length of her book. Milkman is a boy who has it all: favored son of the richest black man in town (it is strange and exhilarating, just how few white people feature in the entire story), spoiled by his mother, indulged by all his relatives and friends. But Milkman is stuck and incomplete. He cannot become whole until he reconnects with his own frail humanity, his whole family, his heritage and Southern rural roots. As with Hurston's Janie, we take this journey of discovery with Milkman; like Milkman, we must look into our lost, hidden and vulnerable sides, in order to become more whole in the end.
I'm not going to tell you the story of Song of Solomon: Toni Morrison owns the whole thing, and I could only draw you a stick-figure sketch. Instead, I'm going to look at the massive, intricate and strange qualities I found in Morrison's storytelling craft. But don't look at this tangle of threads and cogs I'm pulling out and say "Oh, that's a mess, I don't want to read that book." A teenager could enjoy this book (though they might be shocked at a couple of scenes). Song of Solomon is not a hard read. I made it harder for myself, by grasping throughout for complete comprehension. But, you know, I enjoy grappling for meaning.
Let's look at Toni Morrison as a writer, at the various talents she brings to her work, and at the personality beyond that which informs her fresh and powerful voice. Here is one paragraph that sings to me:
Solid, rumbling, likely to erupt without prior notice, Macon kept each member of his family awkward with fear. His hatred of his wife glittered and sparked in every word he spoke to her. The disappointment he felt in his daughters sifted down on them like ash, dulling their buttery complexions and choking the lilt out of what should have been their girlish voices. Under the frozen heat of his glance they tripped over doorsills and dropped the salt cellar into the yolks of their poached eggs. The way he mangled their grace, wit and self-esteem was the single excitement of their days. Without the tension and drama he ignited, they might not have known what to do with themselves. In his absence his daughters bent their necks over blood-red squares of velvet and waited eagerly for any hint of him, and his wife, Ruth, began her days stunned into stillness by her husband's contempt and ended them wholly animated by it.Morrison sure knows how to write. She gives us a handful of physical details, picking them so precisely that they show us this entire household and the storm-clouds at its heart. So many of the words are a little surprising, they have a rawness and spin to them: "His hatred of his wife glittered and sparked". They feel so sharp and true. It grabs your mind's eye: "his daughters bent their necks over blood-red squares of velvet and waited eagerly for any hint of him".
She fits so much reality into her words, such a rolling musicality into her sentences, and then a complete unfolding story into her paragraph - with that marvelous, startling last line: "Ruth, began her days stunned into stillness by her husband's contempt and ended them wholly animated by it." Morrison paints these vivid surfaces, draws the energies between them, dives into the psychological nuances that drive her characters, and ends up nailing surprising human truths. This is what novels are for.
Toni Morrison is a Rocket Ship
The First Stage is her ownership of all the essential skills it takes to build a novel. She is a natural storyteller, with a good ear for just what grabs our attention, and how to make it sing. She can pace and layer a plot with many interlocking parts. She has so much human warmth, range and insight; like Dickens, every character she writes jumps out and sticks with us. She has a powerful grasp of all the salient aspects of language, including those that elude most novelists. Her dialog crackles and speaks straight from her distinct characters.
Plot, Character and Language are the foundation of the novel. Morrison also loves books, and has devoured them throughout her life, starting with childhood favorites, Austen and Tolstoy. She has studied the architecture, examined these edifices and their blueprints. She spent 51 years as a literature professor and editor. Like Picasso, she absorbed the traditions, how all of literature was made, so that she could know it all without thinking, and set out to explore her own voice.
The Second Stage is all the stories Morrison inhabits that get short shrift in mainstream fiction. She has studied America, and writes convincing characters from different regions and classes, facing the different issues those lives entail. Toni Morrison's family was working class: she faced the trials of poverty, and they are part of the America she writes. So many books don't attempt this, and so few make it as real and immediate as Morrison does. When she was a child, her family were behind on the rent. The landlord set fire to the house, while the family were inside. They got out, and then they laughed.
Morrison calls herself a "Black Woman Novelist". It feels to me like she has not just looked at the stories, troubles and fears of blacks and women, she has steeped herself in these issues in her own life, and she has studied all the literature that blacks and women have written. So Song of Solomon has almost no whites, but it includes so many different views of blackness, of all the ways blacks deal with an unfair society, and treat each other, and go a little crazy from the twisted game we call America - or rise above it and fly back to Africa. The same applies to all the different women in the book, and the problems and joys they live through.
Two thirds of the way through the book, I found there is a Part II. The first part was crowded with so much matter, as if Morrison had mixed together every kind of street talk in this city in Michigan, all of literature, the Bible and the blues, to make some cosmic stew called America. In the second part, the story has more room to breathe. Milkman heads south, looking for his roots, his past, some kind of treasure. He walks back out of the booming, buzzing confusion that is 20th century literature, and finds himself in a simpler place, which feels more like a fable.
Right before he leaves home, at the end of Part I, Milkman's sister gives him a two-page talking-to. She tells him everything we've begun to suspect about him, and then some. After 230 pages getting to know Milkman, Lena's scolding was one of the most effective feminist catharses I've ever seen.
Morrison is telling all the stories that are essential to America, but too often ignored: all the meanings of being black, being a woman, being poor, or living in parts of the States which are less written about. Because of who she is, because of all the work she has done in her life, she is able to tell all these stories from the inside, to make them so real they catch fire. Most Americans who read books will find Hemingway or Updike more approachable because, although Morrison has mastered their language, she also speaks from the Bible, the blues and the basements of America. She is a complex chorus, owning a babel of American tongues.
When I said Toni Morrison is "one of our greatest American Novelists, perhaps the most significant of the last half century", her greatness referred her prodigious skills, but her significance referred to all the stories she brings, which fall at the edges or outside of the main stream of fiction. She is stretching fiction, making room for other writers to tell similar tales, and getting readers to explore less beaten paths. She already recognized quality when she was a child. As writers, I have so much to learn from her first two favorites: Austen and Tolstoy. But as an American, Toni Morrison may have more to teach me about the hidden parts of myself, and the lost parts of my heritage and national identity, than any other writer.
The Third Stage is Toni Morrison's personal voice and style. Remember we began with Toni Morrison flying away on her own inspiration, over the woods, above the flocks, beyond the sun? I can just about see the first two stages of this rocket ship (though there are many more nuts and bolts than I've looked at). The third stage is happening outside of my atmosphere, beyond my ken.
I can sense that she has a huge personality, and that she is singing from all the depths and heights of herself. I can see that in her confidence and flow. Beyond all the mechanics and science she's learned, there is a natural artist at work. But I have only looked at two books by Toni Morrison, and it will take a few more before I can trace the distinctive rhythms and timbres that are her own peculiar magic. It will be a long journey, but she has already cured me of some of my doubt. I'm a bit more whole than when I started this trip.