Full disclosure: I am an unabashed foamingmouth fan of Morrison's work. Song of Solomon ranks as one of my favorite books ever. I've only read about half her titles, but I've not yet been disappointed. She is magical. This hilarious tweet from Jeff at The Reading Ape and BookRiot pretty much sums it up: I went to check out Apple's "Genius Bar" and, alas, it did not consist of Toni Morrison drinking alone.
Unfortunately, this book had a similar level of alas. There were flashes of Morrison-Brilliance, and they were enough to sustain my reading, but the book felt unfinished, and I was sad at how much was left unsaid. More on that in a moment. What's it about? Frank Money is a recently-returned Veteran of the Korean War. He is understandably still dealing with the trauma of the war and his jarring return to a still-segregated and still-cruel America. When he learns his sister is in some sort of desperate trouble, he returns to Georgia to rescue her. More on that in a moment.
The jacket copy says "he discovers a profound courage he had thought he could never possess again." I'm not exactly sure what profound courage this statement refers to unless it is the courage it took for him to quietly but insistently tell a difficult truth in his story. Though I liked the spare writing of that section, it contributed to a less-than-climactic feeling, less profound courage than quiet strength. The jacket copy also says it is a story of "an apparently defeated man finding his manhood - and his home." As usual, I take issue with the jacket copy (and in this case, with the author's framing decision) because this book did not strike me as being about Frank Money more than about the women in his life. His sister, Cee, and his girlfriend, Lily, and even his step-grandmother, Lenore, are characters that drive the narrative for me, especially in regard to that concept of home. Certainly, I was way less impressed with Frank's found manhood than with some of the things the women of this book endured and accomplished.
But what about the stuff left unsaid and the rescue, you ask? By placing Frank at the center of the narrative, these amazingly nuanced women are pushed to the periphery, their stories merely sketched in where they should have been more developed. Both Lily and Cee are pushed to a determined independence from any man, but both exist in the story solely because of their attachment to Frank. That structural decision makes them dependent and seems to run counter to what their characters are trying to accomplish. Also, when Frank arrives triumphantly to rescue Cee from Dr. Scott, she is not even conscious. He sweeps in and carries her out, but the real rescue occurs at the hands of Miss Ethal Fordham and the other women of Lotus, GA who provide her with all kinds of healing. Yes, Frank brought her to them, but they did all the saving. Finally, the critical damage done to Cee is left completely unexplored. We are given enough hints to know what happened, but we are not allowed access to Cee's experience during that time. It is a vast, blank space in the narrative.
Morrison's interview in The Paris Review Interviews, Volume II was conducted back in 1993. In it, she reveals something about this blank space in a narrative:
The difficulty for me in writing - among the difficulties - is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn't hear anything. Now for that, one has to work very carefully with what is in between the words. What is not said. Which is measure, which is rhythm, and so on. So, it is what you don't write that frequently gives what you do write its power. (361)A beautiful example of the intentional crafting of her work. The whole interview is gorgeous and illuminating, so even though this novel isn't my favorite, I'm still convinced she is among the best we will ever know. Here are my favorite bits from the interview:
Regarding her writing space:
I end up with this space [she indicates a small square spot on her desk] everywhere I am, and I can't beat my way out of it. I am reminded of that tiny desk that Emily Dickinson wrote on and I chuckle when I think, Sweet thing, there she was. But that is all any of us have: just this small space... (359)On Faulkner's ability to write about race without writing about race:
Do you know how hard it is to withhold that kind of information but hinting, pointing all of the time? And then to reveal it in order to say that it is not the point anyway? It is technically just astonishing. (372)On being asked by Bill Moyers when she would write about white people:
I just said, Well maybe one day . . . but I couldn't say to him, you know, you can only ask that question from the center. The center of the world! I mean he's a white male. He's asking a marginal person when are you going to get to the center, when are you going to write about white people. I can't say, Bill, why are you asking me that question? Or, As long as that question seems reasonable is as long as I won't, can't. The point is that he is patronizing; he's saying, You write well enough; you could come on into the center if you wanted to. You don't have to stay out there on the margins. And I'm saying, Yeah, well, I'm gonna stay out here on the margin, and let the center look for me. (389)Hell, yeah, Ms. Morrison. Hell, yeah.
*this post is part of my ongoing, neverending, long-neglected TPR Challenge. See here for more information. Also, I misnumbered the last couple, so this post gets the number right even though it appears I have skipped #14.