FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Toni Morrison on Her Own Terms

by CHARLES R. LARSON

The advance reading copy of Toni Morrison’s new novel, “A Mercy,” arrived with no hype from the publisher—no comment at all about the story, the plot, the characters, simply a brief statement on the cover : “A new novel, set, like Beloved, in the American past.”   That’s pretty vague, unspecific, but obviously the author’s intent (though there is more detail on her publisher’s website.)   The demands  are on the reader to figure it out—who is speaking, what has happened, what it all means.  Thus the challenge for the critic is to honor Morrison’s wish, not reveal more than necessary, especially the plot and its surprises, what too many reviewers rely on to stretch their reviews to the required length (too often cribbing from the jacket of the finished book or the  publicity package from the publisher.)

I am reminded of Doris Grumbach’s question to me years ago when we were both writing reviews of John Irving’s “The World According to Garp” (1978).  Had I come to the scene involving the penis in the mouth?  Fortunately, I had, but I hated the question.  What right did the twenty or so of us, the reviewers who were working from galleys, have to reveal such an important incident in the novel’s plot to thousands of readers?  This was in the days before publishers flooded the media with thousands of advance copies of a highly-touted book and the number of galleys was rare.  Similarly, I asked myself, What right did a movie critic have to reveal the ending of the film that he or she was reviewing and thus deny that one time surprise effect that all narrative art depends upon?

Thus, to the challenge:  “A Mercy” drags us back to America in 1690, well before the time of Morrison’s masterpiece, “Beloved.”  Voices reach out to us often with their identities unclear until pages have turned, with sparse clues from the author as to whom we are encountering.  But history and nuance reveal much more.  America is a dreadful place, with religious intolerance likely to destroy everyone, with English indentured servants (prostitutes, cutthroats and other undesirables) enduring an existence only marginally better than that of the African slaves who have also been shipped here with no choice in the matter.

Even a scene in London alludes to disease, squalor and inhumanity hardly better than what slaves encountered on American plantations. And a journey across the Atlantic by a mail-order bride reeks of the similar mortality hazards of the Middle Passage for Africans. Is Toni Morrison mellowing, implying that Europeans often suffered the same afflictions as Africans brought here as slaves?

Yes and no.  England may have been only marginally more civilized than Africa at the time.  Moreover, although there are decent white people in this story (just as there are monsters), the strongest character is a free African, a blacksmith who knows as much about medicine as smithery.

We encounter these characters and others in a crisis during a smallpox epidemic that changes the dynamics of a slaveholder household where the master is known as Sir and the mistress simply as that. Their voices are distinct in their styles—often in eloquent prose—and the bewitching encounters of lovers, the harrowing decisions that parents must make about their children, of unbearable pain (mental and physical) that dances around the issues of loss and bereavement.

There is as much plot here as in Morrison’s finest novels, superb characterization, and always the probing questions about man’s humanity or lack thereof.

A Mercy” is Toni Morrison’s finest novel since she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. His books include Under African Skies, Worlds of Fiction, The Ordeal of the African Writer and Academia Nuts. He can be reached at: clarson@american.edu

 

Your Ad Here
 

 

 

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Weekend Edition
February 23, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Richard D. Wolff
Capitalism as Obstacle to Equality and Democracy: the US Story
Paul Street
Where’s the Beef Stroganoff? Eight Sacrilegious Reflections on Russiagate
Jeffrey St. Clair
They Came, They Saw, They Tweeted
Andrew Levine
Their Meddlers and Ours
Charles Pierson
Nuclear Nonproliferation, American Style
Joseph Essertier
Why Japan’s Ultranationalists Hate the Olympic Truce
W. T. Whitney
US and Allies Look to Military Intervention in Venezuela
John Laforge
Maybe All Threats of Mass Destruction are “Mentally Deranged”
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: an American Reckoning
David Rosen
For Some Reason, Being White Still Matters
Robert Fantina
Nikki Haley: the U.S. Embarrassment at the United Nations
Joyce Nelson
Why Mueller’s Indictments Are Hugely Important
Joshua Frank
Pearl Jam, Will You Help Stop Sen. Tester From Destroying Montana’s Public Lands?
Dana E. Abizaid
The Attack on Historical Perspective
Conn Hallinan
Immigration and the Italian Elections
George Ochenski
The Great Danger of Anthropocentricity
Pete Dolack
China Can’t Save Capitalism from Environmental Destruction
Joseph Natoli
Broken Lives
Manuel García, Jr.
Why Did Russia Vote For Trump?
Geoff Dutton
One Regime to Rule Them All
Torkil Lauesen – Gabriel Kuhn
Radical Theory and Academia: a Thorny Relationship
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Work of Persuasion
Thomas Klikauer
Umberto Eco and Germany’s New Fascism
George Burchett
La Folie Des Grandeurs
Howard Lisnoff
Minister of War
Eileen Appelbaum
Why Trump’s Plan Won’t Solve the Problems of America’s Crumbling Infrastructure
Ramzy Baroud
More Than a Fight over Couscous: Why the Palestinian Narrative Must Be Embraced
Jill Richardson
Mass Shootings Shouldn’t Be the Only Time We Talk About Mental Illness
Jessicah Pierre
Racism is Killing African American Mothers
Steve Horn
Wyoming Now Third State to Propose ALEC Bill Cracking Down on Pipeline Protests
David Griscom
When ‘Fake News’ is Good For Business
Barton Kunstler
Brainwashed Nation
Griffin Bird
I’m an Eagle Scout and I Don’t Want Pipelines in My Wilderness
Edward Curtin
The Coming Wars to End All Wars
Missy Comley Beattie
Message To New Activists
Jonah Raskin
Literary Hubbub in Sonoma: Novel about Mrs. Jack London Roils the Faithful
Binoy Kampmark
Frontiersman of the Internet: John Perry Barlow
Chelli Stanley
The Mirrors of Palestine
James McEnteer
How Brexit Won World War Two
Ralph Nader
Absorbing the Irresistible Consumer Reports Magazine
Cesar Chelala
A Word I Shouldn’t Use
Louis Proyect
Marx at the Movies
Osha Neumann
A White Guy Watches “The Black Panther”
Stephen Cooper
Rebel Talk with Nattali Rize: the Interview
David Yearsley
Market Music
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail