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Perhaps I was a bit hard on Toni Morrison in the first installment
of my review of her new book, A Mercy (Knopf, 167 pages, $23.95)
. The fact is, Morrison's bad writing is a lot better than most people's good writing. But critics aren't doing her any favors by giving good reviews to this frankly mediocre historical novel. And there have been plenty of good reviews. Check these out:
“…A heartbreaking account of lost innocence and fractured dreams, [that] also stands, with Beloved, as one of Ms. Morrison's most haunting works yet.” – Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“…Morrison's unflinching narrative is all the more powerful for its relative brevity; it takes hold of the reader and doesn't let go until the wrenching final-page crescendo.” – Publishers Weekly
“…stands alongside Beloved as a unique triumph in Morrison's body of work.” – Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“Luminous and complex…” - Lev Grossman, Time
“Magnificent…a masterpiece of rewarding complexity.” - Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times (London)
No one's threatening to take away Morrison's Nobel (or her National Book Critics Circle Award, or her Pulitzer). She wrote a bad book, and her reviewers would do much better to be honest with her about it, unless they'd like more of the same.
Morisson is a fine prose stylist. Beloved
—which shares numerous themes with A Mercy
—is monumental and expertly crafted. But let's go ahead and rip the Band-Aid off. A Mercy
is no fun. I didn't enjoy reading it, and I wouldn't recommend it to a friend.
When she is just a girl, Florens is offered by her mother, a slave, as legal tender for a debt owed by their master. The two are separated and Florens thereby becomes the property of one Jacob Vaark, a Dutch farmer and rum trader. At Vaark's farm in Milton, New York, Florens matures under the three-pronged tutelage of Vaark's other slaves, Lina and Sorrow, and his wife, Rebekka.
The novel is driven by a series of unforeseen events that destabilize the farm and isolate the formerly chummy women from one another. For Florens, it's a journey of love and self-discovery. Sent on an urgent mission through the wild countryside, she learns what it means to love and what it means to be slave. All that sounds just fine, but it bears mentioning that the plot would have been almost impossible to pin down without the help of an eloquent book jacket designed by Barbara de Wilde.
That's because the style is so unnecessarily dense. Morrison's writing, which has always showed echoes of Faulkner, seems to have swung farther in that direction with this most recent effort. In this case, three or four key events—around which the plot seems to pivot, rather than advance—are cryptically narrated from the perspectives of slaves and their masters, living on a farm in upstate New York. (Further Faulknerian parallels are thematic: a doomed, great man trying to build a dynasty in the wilderness; a rich woman dying of disease in a big house; an emphasis on dialect; the looming threat of rape; and the knotty consequences of miscegenation.)
Writing about a time period and a social caste with which readers will be almost uniformly unfamiliar, Morrison would have done well to offer a little exposition or stir up some interest for her characters—sympathy even! Instead, without ceremony or explanation, she plunges the reader into the sometimes hostile and inexplicable first-person perspectives of a half-dozen 17th-century farmers. Here's the book's opening:
"Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark—weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more—but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain. You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog's profile plays in the steam of a kettle..."
It may sound pretty, but when it goes on like that for pages—pages untroubled by paragraph breaks—and chapters—chapters innocent of intelligibility—you start to get dizzy.
The problem of style is exacerbated by the way it is mismatched to content. Frankly, this story would be boring if Morrison told it straight, and she certainly hasn't told it straight. Perhaps the author is trying to evoke the historian's difficulty in recreating scenes from this period, for which only the meagerest records exist. Or maybe—particuarly in the Florens sections—she is trying to bridge the gap between prose and poetry. In any case, for all its perspicuity, A Mercy
might as well have been written in Coptic.
Various Biblical/allegorical character names—Rebekka, Jacob, Messalina, Florens, Patrician, Sorrow, Twin, Complete—transform A Mercy
into something of a morality play, a construction that is heavy-handed at best. Worse, Morrison's characters so faithfully follow the trajectories implicit in their names that they could have been lifted from the pages of Pilgrim's Progress.
In other words: Morrison isn't modifying, satirizing or undermining the allegorical technique in writing. She's just using it.
For most readers, that's bad news. Allegory went out with John Bunyan. Add to that some heavy-handed pontificating on topics like the environment, Native Americans, slavery and homosexuality...and, well, you've got yourself one hell of a preachy book.
Still, it could be worse. As we've already seen, the Florens sections read like virtuosic prose poems, in a dazzling present tense that somehow gives us a new look at a much gone-over subject: the once-wild forests of New England. Everybody from James Fenimore Cooper to Nathaniel Hawthorne to Arthur Miller has had a crack at those forests, but somehow Morrison is able to carve out her own space there. Take, for instance, the following paragraph, excerpted from Florens' journey to fetch the blacksmith:
“Not birdsong but sunlight wakes me. All snow is gone. Relieving myself is troublesome. Then I am going north I think but maybe west also. No, north until I come to where the brush does not let me through without clutching me and taking hold. Brambles spread among saplings are wide and tall to my waist. I press through and through for a long time which is good since in front of me sudden is an open meadow wild with sunshine and smelling of fire. This is a place that remembers the burning of itself” (101-102).
The writing here is not unlike the cinematography in The Blair Witch Project:
grainy, jerky, distracted, frequently bordering on inane. But when it reveals something significant—for instance, a meadow “wild with sunshine and smelling of fire”—it's like we're seeing it for the first time. At just the right moment, the narrative comes into sharp focus, as when the author describes a plague of black flies descending “in scarves” (49) or a sky “the texture of a fine lady's ball gown” (92). Through devices like these, Morrison's landscape takes on an extratextual life that is the hardest thing in the world for an author to create. And, well, that's something.
The danger, of course, isn't that Morrison's text is impenetrable. The danger is that no one will want to penetrate it. Those wishing to study the period in question with any seriousness will turn to nonfiction. It may sound crass, but readers of novels tend to want a good time.