It always feels slightly blasphemous to review Toni Morrison’s work—even worse if you’re discussing her in an uppity, academic setting. There seems to be some disservice done if you aren’t simply basking in her glory. This is not to say that her work is untouchable (read Love and you’ll know what I mean), and I certainly don’t believe she thinks as much (though she wields a far heavier hand in critical reception to her work), but that any review I might eke out will inevitably fall short. Perhaps this is why I’ve felt so uncomfortable over the past several weeks; I re-read Beloved and Sula one after another (Beloved for my longest seminar paper; Sula for a presentation), and in a scholarly capacity. Not only did I feel slightly, as I said, presumptuous—but also inadequate, for how does one write about a novel as emotionally complex and ethically indeterminate as Beloved? How does one argue against Sula as a positive model for the ‘new black woman’ in a classroom—especially when you yourself love Sula, even despite your inclination to think of her as an awful person? At the end of the two weeks or so it took to get through both novels, I felt like a picked scab. I was emotionally tired out.
It seems strange that it had been so long since I’d read either novel—above three years for both of them—because so many moments from each have become imprinted on my psyche, it seems. Of course, one forgets much: the strange spectacle of Shadrack’s final National Suicide Day; Helene Wright turning to ‘custard’ on the train; the fact that Paul D made an impact on 124 Bluestone Road (or Paul D more generally; it seems I only remember the women of Beloved). But there is also much that feels inescapable: the ‘O-gape’ of despair in Nel’s final howl for Sula; the chokecherry tree that blossoms on Sethe’s dead-skinned back; that strange rose-shaped birthmark over Sula’s eye; Amy Denver’s yearning for velvet and for Boston, where she’ll find that velvet. In some ways, I can only describe the power these novels have had over me in Sethe’s terms—they follow me, my rememory, and I run into these images and moments at unexpected times, with unexpected reactions to them. I say rememory because for Sethe, rememory signals the tangible quality of the past—you encounter your own history as tactile, rather than ephemeral, and at times, this past is something you simply cannot get away from. Not that I want to escape Morrison’s work, but that her novels have that beautifully tangible quality for me; I don’t simply scan the pages, but enter into some other world, an elsewhere, where I confront my self even as I confront all that is narrated.
Re-reading Beloved this go-round was particularly difficult. It took me nearly two weeks to get through the novel—for no other reason than that there were many occasions where I simply had to put it down and step back for a spell. I won’t pretend that I feel the emotional resonances of black experience—but even as a white, gay, male reader, I can feel the resonances of the human experience, which is precisely what I think Morrison intends. The politics of slavery and the tensions of the post-Reconstruction era are of course central to the novel, but Beloved is never a polemical minstrel show—the powerful political work is done, it seems, simply by granting her characters an implicit and enduring humanity. One of the things I’ve always admired about Morrison’s work is her capacity to imagine the nuances of every person, no matter how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ they might seem at surface. Thus, in the face of the awful atrocities Schoolteacher and his pupils commit against the Sweet Home slaves, there are whitepeople like Amy Denver, like the Garners and the Bodwins—and even in the case of Schoolteacher, who horrifyingly instructs his pupils to put Sethe’s ‘human’ qualities on one side of a list and her ‘animal’ on the other, there is an indication that he has some capacity for sympathetic feeling, if only in his treatment of his dying sister-in-law. Likewise, Sethe is the emotional core of the novel, but she has committed one of the only crimes that is literally unrepresentable—infanticide. Morrison neither condemns her, nor lets her entirely off the hook. Even in their most fraught and horrifying sins, these characters are for Morrison essentially human, and she treats each one on their own terms. A novel about slavery and infanticide—a ghost story, in some capacity, as well—never manages to become moralizing or alienating, because Morrison refuses to let either her narrative or her reader take any easy outs.
Sula once tried to battle Beloved for my top-Morrison spot, but I think this re-reading has cemented the hierarchy for me. Nonetheless, they both remain among my favorite novels of all time (Beloved, in fact, has to be in the top five for me). Sula offers a wonderful exploration of female-female relationships (not necessarily erotic, though one can certainly read the Sula/Nel pairing as erotic in some capacity—I would argue more autoerotic than anything), and imagines a space in which women necessarily rely upon one another in a woman-centered community. My professor asked as we discussed the novel: ‘Do you think Morrison suggests that men have to leave in order for these characters to establish healthy and productive intimacies?’ And in fact, I tend to agree. We talked about the novel as contextualized alongside the Moynihan Report (a 1965 sociological ‘study’ that essentially claimed that female-headed black households kept ‘the race’ down, and generated figures like the Welfare Queen)—and so wondered together whether Morrison’s novel offers an alternative to these sorts of (white) hegemonic discourses on matrilineal systems in black communities. For Sula, this is the only available model; and in the case of Sula and Nel, female intersubjectivity is the most powerful and generative model of subject formation. Notice that the real troubles of the novel occur only after Nel and Sula’s strangely indistinguishable identities are fractured. Oh, look. There I went and did an academic discussion of the novel. But these issues weren’t what first drew me to the novel; rather, I think I was pulled in by the vulnerability of Nel, who ‘pulls her nose’ to make it seem more ‘white’ in the eyes of her mother. I was drawn to the way Morrison describes the ‘expanse of khaki’ that covers the men’s predatory/dormant dicks—and how Nel and Sula are unable to comprehend—but simultaneously able to intuit—what it means to be called ‘pig meat’ by these men. I was seduced by Sula, much the way she seduces everyone around her, and repulsed by her selfish actions—I was lured into imagining what it would be to function as the ‘dumping ground’ for a community’s frustrations, but being self-sufficient enough (as Sula is) to not give a damn. I felt my chest tighten when Nel lets out that final roar of utter grief (sidenote: Morrison has a real way of illustrating inarticulable emotions through guttural sounds). I considered my own conflicting desires to assimilate, as Nel does, and to deviate, as Sula does—the novel asks, in many ways, how we might discover a middle ground, and if such a thing can sustain itself. Sula doesn’t have the weight of Beloved, but it is in many ways so different from Beloved (even though many of the same issues arise—woman-centered communities, the mother-right, infanticide, & co.) that it carries the same sense of power.
As I mentioned at the top, Morrison has had her hits and her misses. Love is scatterbrained, meandering, and a bit of a hackneyed reworking/amalgam of her earlier novels. Song of Solomon may be a powerful novel, quite well written (with an absolutely amazing opening scene)—but for me, Morrison simply can’t write men in the same way she writes women, and the novel suffers for it. Her most recent, A Mercy, is positively stunning; The Bluest Eye was an eye-opening experience for silly-freshman-me, who had read perhaps one black author previously (Ellison’s Invisible Man). Jazz, Paradise, and Tar Baby all sit on my shelf, beckoning to me—but will likely have to wait until summer, as Atwood and Byatt’s new novels will dominate my winter break.
But Beloved and Sula are truly two works beyond comparison. As schmaltzy as it sounds, they changed my life. And it’s almost heartbreaking to see so many vicious reviews on goodreads, where people tear Beloved apart, call it the ‘worst novel’ they’ve ever read, decry Morrison’s illuminative faculties as a prose writer. I can only tell myself that