Sunday, February 07, 2010

Review: Beloved, by Toni Morrison

[Fuck it, I edited the post. Does that bother anyone? I can revert to the clumsier original if it does. I am upset by a comment obviously, but it was a fair one in the sense that an anecdote and a bunch of adjectives on my part are not sufficient to communicate my understanding of the novel. And I'm looking at it this way too: some sophomore is going to find this post sooner or later, and for the purposes of my self-respect, I'd like that turned-in copy to at least look like it was plagiarized.]

It's not like the shitty old cliché needs any more mileage, but the cover of a book really does offer a small basis for pre-judgment, at least in the sense that it tells me what the publisher thinks of this book, or what hints to content the company thinks will entice people to buy it. Books convey all kinds of suggestions like this. For a sufficiently famous or worthy work, you'll find a few pages packed with one-sentence blurbs, which are probably better thought of as recommendations from famous authors you "know" rather than reviews. (I like to write out my mental blather, but I'm not usually comfortable to go and tell people to read stuff--friends' recommendations are probably the biggest shapers of expectations for this sort of thing.) So with Beloved, I picked up the shiny red trade paperback, with the metallized cursive, which looks like it's meant to be somebody's "book of gold," deeply meaningful and touching. And of course, there's the Nobel prize. What Beloved is, however, is a ghost story, a haunting that's used as a vehicle to carry the unspeakable past into the present. Now, I often like a good haunting, especially when it's plotted with sensitivity to the deceased, and Beloved is, on one level, that sort of book, although it took me a few chapters to realize that, and I wasn't clear whether it was the marketing that governed my expectations. Anticipating one of the best novels of the twentieth century, I felt a bit let down to find just a great-in-parts one. Did the publishers affect me more than they usually do? Irritating if true.

I feel like such a Philistine, especially considering it's little things I kept bumping up against. I stumbled over missed metaphors (this annoyed me most--for example, when the hell is a cloudy sky white hot?) and I had a difficult time pinpointing the authorial voice, which drifted from dialect to a sort of generic third-person academic tone, and sporadically included repeated descriptors as you'd find in oral traditions (Baby Suggs, holy...), to streams of consciousness. I don't have any problem with any of the narrative styles on their own, I just wasn't sure they synthesized into a neat voice. As I mentioned, this novel is a ghost story, but even though we're introduced to the spirit on the first page, the tension is not the mystery of its origins, or rather, it's not the raw fact of them. It's not until the Beloved character returns a couple chapters later, fey and needy, that I began to worry what's going to happen to the living as much as what happened to them. Then, the novel got going for me.

[One issue may be just how much Beloved reminded me of Octavia Butler's novel, Kindred, published in the seventies. It would make a good paired reading. Both use a fantasy trick to bring the modern reader to face the troubling psychological depth of the slave past. I remember Butler's as the better novel, but it's been at least ten years since I read it, so who knows. And it may be that Butler was a science fiction writer, and I was anticipating such a mechanism. There's also a case to be made that it's an easier entry point for cracker douchebags like myself.]

What Morrison has done very well, however, is to get into the heads of her characters and bring the dehumanizing face of slavery to an intimate light. [Quoting myself a little now...] The human cost, physical and emotional, of slavery came through loud and clear in the novel. The way it broke up the most sacred and basic bonds that people cherish was wrenching to read. And it answered the question it set out to answer: how could a mother who loves her children kill them? You leave the book thinking, what choice did she have? I admit that the degrees and depth of the mothering instinct was less intuitive to me than a man's struggle for self-possession (I think Morrison did a hell of a job with the male characters) or a living daughter's inward retreat, but it couldn't be missed.

And to the author's credit, I think it's a very difficult place to transport the contemporary reader, especially one of the aforementioned cracker douchebag variety. The backstory is based on the then-famous trial of Margaret Garner, who, like the protagonist Sethe, allegedly killed her children to prevent them from being dragged back into that life. As the characters look back, Morrison shows us lynching and murder, as well as some abuses that were more probably inventive than the story needed (although clearly written as an attack on Sethe's very motherhood), as well as some masters that were improbably decent. (The author doesn't come as far as forgiveness for a damn one of them.) I thought the everyday mistreatment was more compelling than the elaborately staged events, the cases where people were respected or treated about as well as valued livestock, not hated by whitey, but as people, beneath even his notice.

Part of the evocative success comes, I think, from meeting Sethe, Baby, and Paul D when they are no longer slaves, living what would almost be a happy domestic life, were it not for the angry scars and ghosts (real and figurative) intruding unwillingly from the disturbing past. The characters, up till the time Paul D walks into Sethe's home, have been living numbly, loving guardedly, suffering the expectation that another tragedy is ready to explode around the corner. Even if it was a better life, freedom in postwar Cincinnati meant demeaning jobs, no protection of (or from) the law, and a hobbled human network, which in Sethe's case had further abandoned her. By novel's end, it's clear that the grudgingly restored human connections will take generations for healing.


Schmutzie said...

One thing I really enjoy about your book reviews is that you don't "strongly suggest" that I do or don't run right out and pick a book up. Your reviews are fair and balanced, to steal a line from a network that is anything but. In this case, based on your review, I probably won't read the book (in case you were wondering), but I will be able to pretend that I read it, should it ever come up in conversation.

LentenStuffe said...

The problem with scales which are evenly held is that they may contain nothing. Balance is fine but bias is better, and yours is showing through your critical gloss.

There's no level on which you've even remotely engaged with Morrison's book.

You may not welcome these comments, or your readers may not welcome them on your behalf.

bright said...

I loved Beloved. That said, I haven't read it for at least 15 years, and I wonder how I would read it now that I have a daughter. (I keep finding that motherhood has colored my reading glasses. cf The Lovely Bones, White Oleander, The Twilight Saga.)

You (and then your daughters) need to read The Sisters Grimm series, btw. YA fic with teeth.

Keifus said...

Lenten: One concern, thinking about my reaction to the book, was that the marketing was affecting me. I am not sure what I expected, exactly (multi-generational saga? maybe something along those lines), but the structure of the story was not exactly unfamiliar. Morrison used a ghost story very well to evoke an intimate picture of the past, but I felt the publishers had led my expectations somewhere else. That would be the bias I am most aware of, and it annoys me that it mattered. But it is probably why I found myself caught up in a number of technicalities. I considered re-reading it for this reason. Didn't though.

I don't think your second categorical statement is true, but I agree that the review sucks. (I am never sure if I should rewrite them. The thing about balance is a hit. Ouch.) The human cost, physical and emotional, of slavery came through loud and clear in the novel. The way it broke up the most sacred and basic bonds that people cherish was wrenching to read. And it answered the question it set out to answer: how could a mother who loves them do that to her children? (You leave the book thinking, what choice did she have?) And to the author's credit, I think it's a very difficult place to transport the contemporary reader. The characters...I cared about them, identified with them (I think).

Schmutz: I'd hate to dissuade you unfairly, too. It's one probably worth reading making up your mind about.

And nice pic.

bright: I am pretty sure that I read things differently since I had children, not that you'd know it from what I wrote yesterday.

My daughter appears to have discovered books this year. Not quite to the point where she'll devour anything (she's suspicious of recommendations), but it sounds like a good possiblity if I can introduce it right.

artandsoul said...

There's an echo, too, of the Medea story. It often gets lost in the contemporary lens that she was just jealous and angry.

But it's also highly likely based on the prevalence and acceptance of slavery in that society that her boys would be slaves if Jason and his new wife had sons.

There's a lot to be said for the blazing shadow of ferocious mother-love.

FWIW, I am very often moved at some level by the cover of a book. It's certainly not the end-all-be-all but it does have an effect.

Keifus said...

Hey Art, interesting take on Medea myth. I'm hardly an expert, but it seems like some re-evaluation in that area would be interesting indeed.

Meh, pretty dissatisfied with the post up there, and the truth hurts. Edited the thing for stated reasons...hope that's okay with y'all.

LentenStuffe said...

The question of marketing is irrelevant and that wasn't the bias I was referring to.

Let me ask you one question: after reading Beloved, would you say slaves are more or less human; are they more like livestock, trespassers in the human race or what is it in this story qualifies them as human?

Keifus said...

More or less human than what? More or less human than I thought they were before? Than myself?

I am not sure how to answer the ifrst half of your question. To say that slaves were forced to accept subhuman conditions, or that they were treated like livestock, isn't to say that they were less human. Does using the word "dehumanizing" imply that I think slaves were less human? I do not think they were tresspassers in the human race. I do think (and did already think) that it's a sin that they were treated like that, a sin that's so vast, it's hard to judge the depth of. It's where I am most impressed with Toni Morrison.

Does suffering make us more or less human? As for the characters in the book, you could make a case that they were more acutely human for their suffering. After all, what does a sheltered ass like me know about what is truly valuable? What it really comes down to when, after everything else, the most basic and beloved things are threatened? (In parallel, accepting institutions which allow such suffering may well rob us of our humanity--or of what we can respect about our humanity--a fact that remains plenty challening at this point in history too. I don't think Toni Morrison gave a rat fuck about that loss though. Nor did she need to.) I would say that important expressions of their humanity had been forcibly suppressed by that life and at the time of the novel, were beginning to painfully reassert themselves.

I have to go for now...

LentenStuffe said...

More or less human than their enslavers, say.

Was it her infanticide that made Sethe as 'human' as her white enslavers? In many instances those lynchings and murders of slaves were instances of infanticide.

artandsoul said...


Since you're editing you may want to look at this sentence again:

"Not that any of these any of the narrative tics are bad exactly..."

Or not.

Editing doesn't bother me ... seems to me that thoughts and feelings and reviews are rather organic.

Especially when there are comments.

Keifus said...

Will do, Cindy (shortly). My minor issues with the writing seem like an increasingly feeble point to have made.

Keifus said...

More or less human than their enslavers, say. Was it her infanticide that made Sethe as 'human' as her white enslavers? In many instances those lynchings and murders of slaves were instances of infanticide.

I guess it's time to parse the word. I was getting close last comment.

For human, meaning "consistent with observations about human behavior," I'd have to say that the infanticides as committed by her enslavers fall right square into the category. God knows, humans are woefully adept at defining some group of people as "the other" and committing systemized abuses against them.

For human, meaning "appealing to higher or nobler motives that are normally accepted as unique to the species," then history's enslavers are inhuman.

Where does Sethe's compassionate infanticide come in to either one? I don't think that act is as commonly observed in the species as systemic persecution is, but then, most people aren't put in her situation (or if they are, they don't very often get a voice). Does Sethe's infanticide appeal to the nobler part of our nature? She's doing it for love, right? For protection? Morrison definitely makes a case where the murder is understandable. But she also wants to question the rightness of it--Sethe's community largely abandons her, it may have broken her mother-in-law, and there's a discontented lost soul that comes as a result. I think she ulitmately comes down on the side that it was justifiable, under such extreme circumstances as Sethe had lived and witnessed.

As for my own opinion, I'll generally take a view of human nature that includes our capacity for monstrousness. We have committed all sorts of atrocities on others based on those nobler motives we like to attribute to ourselves. We've killed masses for the name of a compassionate spirituality, for reason, liberty, knowledge, you name it. (Generic "we" here, but some of the things that might be justifying infanticide in the world today are not lost on me. As I have stated recently, I've developed enormous doubts about reasoned arguments for murder and inhumanity. I am ashamed that some things took until adulthood to sink in, but those actually-better human features--my sense of community, family, fairness and decency the local scale where it's easy to see--account for some fo the blindness.) Should I come down on the character Sethe similarly? Can murder ever be committed altruistically? Well, one difference between Sethe and her enslavers, and between her and myself, is that she spent most of her life powerless, denied precisely those mitigating things that make life look like it's worth keeping.

I believe you are suggesting that the act of committing murder was an act of claiming power, and therefore acting more like the rest of us monsters. The text of the novel does support this--there are a bunch of references to demeaning the sympathetic characters as animals: that odd piece about fucking livestock to relieve one's libido, controlled breeding, keeping men in pens, Sethe was milked for God's sake, which was too much for some of the characters too endure (and very nearly too much to even read). I don't think I'm quite convinced that recovering the full spectrum of human behavior was the main point--I still think the primary outward purpose was to give voice to those "sixty million and more" lost souls--but I agree that it's a valid analysis of the book, and I do find it a very interesting one.

LentenStuffe said...
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LentenStuffe said...

This is good. Better than the review.

Is it possible to love your child so much you could kill her? Is there a moral calculus for an act like that?

The slave masters killed their own biological slave children all the time. It wasn't economically viable to do so, but sometimes it 'had' to be done.

What differentiates the two? Morrison's Sethe gives the slave community a moral correlative with which to judge 'white morality'. Often that judgment can only be made indirectly, rhetorically [narratively speaking], and symbolically. The way Morrison navigates this field is the most engaging part of her novel ... morality by fiat of symbolic colour-coding.

Keifus said...

Hey, and all it took was some goading and a little bit of my company's time.

That's a really cute photo.

オテモヤン said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bright said...

Yeah, I agree with オテモヤン.

Keifus said...

Careful! I just heard it links to naughty things, gonna go ahead and delete that Mr. オテモヤン's otherwise trenchant commentary.

LentenStuffe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.