Tuesday, April 23, 2013

541: Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison

History: This book was published in 1977. The novel has faced several challenges and bans in schools throughout the U.S. since 1993. As recently as 2010, the novel was challenged and later reinstated at Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis, IN. Shortlist.com listed Song of Solomon as Barack Obama's favorite book in its list: "40 favorite books of famous people".
Plot: Macon "Milkman" Dead III, derives his nickname from the fact that he was breastfed during childhood (Macon's age can be inferred as he was wearing pants with elastic instead of a diaper, and that he later forgets the event, suggesting he was still rather young). Milkman's father's employee, Freddie, happens to see him through the window being breastfed by his mother. He quickly gains a reputation for being a "Momma's boy" in direct contrast to his (future) best friend, Guitar, who is motherless and fatherless.
Milkman has two sisters, "First Corinthians" and "Magdelene called Lena." The daughters of the family are named by putting a pin in the Bible, while the eldest son is named after his father. The first Macon Dead's name was the result of an administrative error when Milkman's grandfather had to register subsequent to the end of slavery.
Milkman's mother (Ruth Foster Dead) is the daughter of the town's only black doctor; she makes her husband feel inadequate, and it is clear she idolized her father, Doctor Foster, to the point of obsession. After her father dies, her husband claims to have found her in bed with the dead body, sucking his fingers. Ruth later tells Milkman that she was kneeling at her father's bedside kissing the only part of him that remained unaffected by the illness from which he died. These conflicting stories expose the problems between his parents and show Milkman that "truth" is difficult or impossible to obtain. Macon (Jr.) is often violently aggressive towards Ruth because he believes that she was involved sexually with her father and loved her father more than her own husband. On one occasion, Milkman punches his father after he strikes Ruth, exposing the growing rift between father and son.
In contrast, Macon Dead Jr.'s sister, Pilate, is seen as nurturing—an Earth Mother character. Born without a navel, she is a somewhat mystical character. It is strongly implied that she is Divine—a female Christ-in spite of her name. Macon (Jr.) has not spoken to his sister for years and does not think highly of her. She, like Macon, has had to fend for herself from an early age after their father's murder, but she has dealt with her past in a different way than Macon, who has embraced money as the way to show his love for his father. Pilate has a daughter, Reba, and a granddaughter named Hagar. Hagar falls desperately and obsessively in love with Milkman, and is unable to cope with his rejection, attempting to kill him at least six times.
Hagar is not the only character who attempts to kill Milkman. Guitar, Milkman's erstwhile best friend, tries to kill Milkman more than once after incorrectly suspecting that Milkman has cheated him out of hidden gold, a fortune he planned to use to help his Seven Days group fund their revenge killings in response to killings of blacks.
Searching for the gold near the old family farm in Pennsylvania, Milkman stops at the rotting Butler Mansion, former home of the people who killed his ancestor to claim the farm. Here he meets Circe, an almost supernaturally old ex-slave of the Butlers. She tells Milkman of his family history and this leads him to the town of Shalimar. There he learns his great-grandfather Solomon was said to have escaped slavery by flying back to Africa, leaving behind twenty-one children and his wife Ryna, who goes crazy with loss. Returning home, he learns that Hagar has died of a broken heart. He accompanies Pilate back to Shalimar, where she is accidentally shot and killed by Guitar, who had intended to kill Milkman.
At the end of the novel, Milkman leaps towards Guitar. This leap is ambiguous, it is not explicitly stated that either or both is killed. However it brings the novel full circle from the suicidal "flight" of Robert Smith, the insurance agent, to Milkman's "flight" in which he learns to fly like Pilate
Review: Toni Morrison’s first two books -- ''The Bluest Eye'' with the purity of its terrors and ''Sula'' with its dense poetry and the depth of its probing into a small circle of lives -- were strong novels. Yet, firm as they both were in achievement and promise, they didn't fully forecast her new book, ''Song of Solomon.'' Here the depths of the younger work are still evident, but now they thrust outward, into wider fields, for longer intervals, encompassing many more lives. The result is a long prose tale that surveys nearly a century of American history as it impinges upon a single family. In short, this is a full novel -- rich, slow enough to impress itself upon us like a love affair or a sickness -- not the two-hour penny dreadful which is again in vogue nor one of the airless cat's cradles custom-woven for the delight and job-assistance of graduate students of all ages.
''Song of Solomon'' isn't, however, cast in the basically realistic mode of most family novels. In fact, its negotiations with fantasy, fable, song and allegory are so organic, continuous and unpredictable as to make any summary of its plot sound absurd; but absurdity is neither Morrison's strategy nor purpose. The purpose seems to be communication of painfully discovered and powerfully held convictions about the possibility of transcendence within human life, on the time-scale of a single life. The strategies are multiple and depend upon the actions of a large cast of black Americans, most of them related by blood. But after the loving, comical and demanding polyphony of the early chapters (set in Michigan in the early 1930's), the theme begins to settle on one character and to develop around and out of him.
His name is Macon Dead, called ''Milkman'' because his mother nursed him well past infancy. He is the son of an upper middle-class Northern black mother and a father with obscure working-class Southern origins. These origins, which Milkman's father is intent on concealing, fuel him in a merciless drive toward money and safety -- over and past the happiness of wife and daughters and son. So the son grows up into chaos and genuine danger -- the homicidal intentions of a woman he spurned after years of love, and an accidental involvement with a secret ring of lifelong acquaintances who are sworn to avenge white violence, eye for eye.
Near midpoint in the book -- when we may begin to wonder if the spectacle of Milkman's apparently thwarted life is sufficient to hold our attention much longer -- there is an abrupt shift. Through his involvement with his father's sister, the bizarre and anarchic Pilate (whose dedication to life and feeling is directly opposed to her brother's methodical acquisition of things), and with Guitar, one of the black avengers, Milkman is flung out of his private maelstrom. He is forced to discover, explore, comprehend and accept a world more dangerous than the Blood Bank (the ghetto neighborhood of idle eccentrics, whores, bullies and lunatics, which he visited as a boy). But this world is also rewarding, as it opens into the larger, freer sphere of time and human contingency and reveals the possibility of knowing one's origins and of realizing the potential found in the lives, failures and victories of one's ancestors.
Although it begins as a hungry hunt for a cache of gold that his father and Pilate left in a cave in Virginia, Milkman's search is finally a search for family history. As he travels through Pennsylvania and Virginia, acquiring the jagged pieces of a story that he slowly assembles into a long pattern of courage and literal transcendence of tragedy, he is strengthened to face the mortal threat that rises from his own careless past to meet him at the end.
The end is unresolved. Does Milkman survive to use his new knowledge, or does he die at the hands of a hateful friend? The hint is that he lives -- in which case Toni Morrison has her next novel ready and waiting: Milkman's real manhood, the means he invents for transmitting or squandering the legacy he has discovered.
But that very uncertainty is one more sign of the book's larger truthfulness (no big, good novel has ever really ended; and none can, until it authoritatively describes the extinction from the universe of all human life); and while there are problems (occasional abortive pursuits of a character who vanishes, occasional luxuriant pauses on detail and the understandable but weakening omission of active white characters), ''Song of Solomon'' easily lifts above them on the wide slow wings of human sympathy, well-informed wit and the rare plain power to speak wisdom to other human beings. A long story, then, and better than good. Toni Morrison has earned attention and praise. Few Americans know, and can say, more than she has in this wise and spacious novel.
Opening Line: “The North Carolina Mutual Life insurance agent, promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three oclock.”
Closing Line: “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
Quotes: “She was the third beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it's there, because it can't hurt, and because what difference does it make?”
Rating: Good

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