Sunday, February 8, 2004

Her hardest book
Darshan Singh Maini

by Toni Morrison. Alfred A. Knoff, New York.
$ 24. Pages 202.

TONI Morrison, the Nobel Prize winner, and a supreme artist that the black race has produced, naturally aroused high expectations whenever she produced a new work of fiction. Some of her novels were also in the eye of the critical storm, but Love, her latest novel, more than any other book, has aroused both fierce partisan and hostile reactions. And for this confusion, Morrison herself is not a little to blame. As we shall see, the 202-page story, perhaps the shortest piece of fiction in her corpus, moves so swiftly and abruptly from person to person, place to place, year to year that, it does create a wilful obscurity, if you like. No wonder, some American critics have remarked that Love needs to be read twice or even thrice before it yields its meaning in a somewhat meagre measure. The elliptical jumps in the time-scale, and the sudden flights into the wide spaces make it increasingly her hardest book to understand. Compared with some of her best novels—my favourite books are: Song of Solomon and Beloved—Love is a less intense and hallucinatory novel, and its lyricism doesn’t reach the sublime heights of the earlier books. It remains, as far as I can see, a novel outside of her canon, more experimental and daring, but also more vulnerable, more troubled.

The novel is divided into nine parts or chapters, each bearing a significant title whose meaning becomes clearer as that section of the story begins to gather rhythm and momentum, they are called "Portrait," "Friend," "Stranger," "Husband," "Guardian," " and "Phantom."

Love, as the title suggests, explores nearly all the forms and facets of love—its beauty and wonder, its rise and fall, its sexual ecstasy and enchantment, its brutalities and sordidness, its murderous inclinations, its sadism, etc. Her earlier novels too wind through such emotions and passions. But in Love, a systematic probe into the problematics of being a lover, a husband, a jilted woman, etc. makes it a primer of love, chiefly in its lowest depths and depravities. "The Prologue," a 10-page affair in italics is the disembodied voice of the narrator, and the italics continue when that voice appears and disappears. As we will see, the narration is at multiple levels, and one is apt to get confused. At times, two narrators appear to be resurrecting their past, raising some "ghosts" in the process. Indeed, it is the spirit of the chief protagonist, Mr Cosey, a wealthy black owner of Cosey’s Hotel and Resort that hovers over the lives of his widow, Heed, of grandson, Romen, and others that had come into his life for one reason or another. This brooding air is chiefly confined to the narrators’ sections.

This novel is different from nearly all her previous novels in one significant aspect. It does not deal with the perpetual story of the black exploitation and brutalisation by the white community in the United States—a theme to be found in all its profound intensity in the leading black novelists like Richard Wright, James Baldwin and others. Here in Love, Morrison has subjected the rising and expanding black bourgeoisie to her sarcasm and satire. It is the black within the black that the confrontations take place. The whites are just absent from the story except as occasional referential points.

The locale of Love is a place called Up Beach, and nearly all the action takes place where Bill Cosy’s Hotel is situated. Since the story is recalled some 40 years later, long after Cosey’s death, and the narrators and voices keep changing, we keep trying to gather the loose ends to see some pattern.

The town is called Silk, and we meet a girl names June, or Junior, as she is known. Seeing an ad in a paper, she is in search of the house where Bill Cosey’s widow, Heed, is supported to be living. Junior is just 18, and Heed "with her whore’s heart" tells Junior that she needs some one to do her memories, and the clever, adventurous, amorous girl stays on to create all manner or troubles. She’s soon necking — and sleeping with Cosey’s grandson, Romen, driving him into one trouble after another. In his story of reminiscences, we come across a name—Celestial, a great beauty of her period whom Bill Cosey had picked up. She is probably a prostitute, but she follows him to the grave.

The narrator has once been a chef or a cook in Cosey’s Hotel, and since the story is told from several points of view, we see things rotated, as it were. The point of view technique, which Henry James, for instances, perfected remains the guiding line, the watching eye in his rivals. But here, in Love, the focus keeps shifting and as we have noticed earlier, the reader remains uncertain, such being the drift of the tale. This chef, who also narrates the story, knows some secrets to which not many are privy. Meanwhile, Romen sleeping with Junior, and perhaps other women, contracts the new dreaded disease, AIDS. The grandmother keeps working upon him to come out clean, but he is a skilful dodger.

Lo, the narrator, is heard again in the concluding chapter a "phantom" figure and voice. The last few words of the novel read thus: "If I had read it in 1964 instead of in 1971, I would have known that what looked like seven years of self-pity and remorse was really vengeance."

Before I sum as my impressions of Love, I wish to quote a couple of American critics. The novel writes Mary Mitchell, looks "muddled," but, on reflection, it seems to make good sense. Laur Miler maintains that the novel has some of the power of her "fiery book, Sula," and that its structure remains whole and intact. A damaging view is taken by Michiko Kakertane writing for "Books of the Times." "It reads like a gothic soap opera peopled by scheming bitter women, and selfish predatory men.... "The touches of surrealism.... feel like garnishes, sprinkled on as an afterthoughts".

In my view, Love comes in the wake of her best books like Song of Solomon where her vision soars in the end, and Beloved, a novel of immense intensity and the poetry of woe and despair. The real problem is that no great writer can always remain on the peaks where to draw the breath becomes an ordeal. Quite a few great American novelists like Henry James, Faulkner, Hemingway, too could not sustain their oeuvre, and the falling-off was not a surprise. Morrison tried to overreach herself in Love and though she succeeded in doing a difficult book, she too could not keep the high standard set by her in her earlier great novels.