Tuesday, August 18, 2009

180. Jazz – Toni Morrison

History: Published in 1992, the novel deliberately mirrors the music of its title, with various characters "improvising" solo compositions that fit together to create a whole work. The tone of the novel also shifts with these compositions, from bluesy laments to up beat, sensual ragtime. The novel also utilizes the call and response style of Jazz music, allowing the characters to explore the same events from different perspectives.
Plot: Joe and Violet trace meet and get married in rural Virginia. In 1901 they are evicted from their land. In 1906 Joe and Violet ride the train into New York City and begin a new life there, Joe as a door-to-door beauty product salesman, Violet as a hairdresser. They don't have children, a decision which Violet later regrets painfully.
In 1917 Dorcas Manfred's parents are murdered in East St. Louis during the riots. Dorcas is taken in by Alice Manfred and moves to New York where, at the age of eighteen, she meets Joe. The two carry on a brief love affair behind Violet's back, until, in an episode of complex anger and love, Joe shoots and kills Dorcas at a party. Violet finds out about what her husband has done and shows up at Dorcas' funeral and tries to mutilate her corpse with a knife. After Dorcas' death, Joe and Violet continue to live together.
Review: I didn't hate this book, the way I did Beloved. The central event of the story is once again an incomprehensible murder--this time a middle aged man kills his young lover in order to preserve the feelings their affair has produced. His wife, upon learning of the liaison, mutilates the corpse; but the two inexplicably resume their married life. So okay, it's a tad melodramatic and unlikely, but great fiction has been built on such shaky foundations before. Morrison however seems uninterested in mining any psychological depths or spinning out any conclusions from her basic set up. Instead the book is sort of a set of bluesy linguistic riffs on Renaissance Harlem, ping ponging backwards and forwards in time, and it does contain some beautiful passages of prose; but to what end? We never really connect with or care about any of the characters. We know about the crimes from the word go, so there's no dramatic tension. Do the periodic phrases of lambent, tumescent prosody really suffice to make the book worthwhile? I think not. The beauty of language has fairly little to do with the basic value of a work of fiction. The Sears Catalogue might sound pretty to some people if read aloud in French, but that doesn't make it great literature. This is about a couple who are in love , told through another person, an onlooker, mostly about the woman who the man absolutely cheated on and his background… I didn’t like it. The story isn’t that gripping really and the style just gets in the way to the point of pretension I thought. I simply didn’t understand what she was trying to do with this novel and, when an artist confuses me, I feel cheated, belittled and naïve.
Opening Line: “Sth I know that woman.”
Closing Line: “You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.”
Quotes: “Terrible but worth the risk, because there is no other thing to do, although, being seventeen, you do it. Study, work, memorize. Bite into food and the reputations of your friends. Laugh at the things that are right side up and those that are upside-down – it doesn’t matter because you are not doing the thing worth doing which is lying down somewhere in a dimly lit place enclosed in arms, and supported by the core of the world.”
Rating: mediocre

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