Friday, March 27, 2009

Culture Swap: Toni Morrison

As followers of this blog know, Abdul Ali and I are doing a culture swap, sharing books and music with each other that we enjoy. The object of this swap is to see beyond our biggest influences and learn about what influenced each other. Last week Abdul wrote about my literary hero--yes, literary hero--Bob Dylan. The response to that post has led me to decide to do a FULL WEEK of Bob Dylan next week, because there's something larger at work here, as evidenced by Barbara Esstman's wonderful response letter to Abdul (which you can read here on this blog on Monday).

But before I write about Toni Morrison, let me mention a few business-related things:

1) Anyone who tried to do just about anything with our Web site in the last couple days may have noticed that something's not working. Well, it's true: something is not working. As part of our efforts to improve our service by improving our Web site, we're shifting to a new webmaster/server. So the site is under renovation. We apologize profusely for any problems this causes. Trust me, it hurts us too.

2) Because this has been a hectic week, my plan of posting a lit journal program piece on Friday didn't come to fruition. What that means is that there will be the very first SATURDAY POST! What I couldn't do earlier I will do today and schedule for tomorrow. So stop by this blog tomorrow for that information. Once our Web site is functioning properly again, it'll also be at

Now on to Toni Morrison.

First let me say this: This culture swap was not the first time I'd come across Morrison's work. I've read two of her books, Jazz and Paradise. What I told Abdul originally was that I found her work to be, at least in those books, a bit of a slog for me. "It's not my kind of thing," I believe I said. A friend of mine, David Todd, recently said of her writing: "She's always right up here in her stories, hovering"--and here he lifted his hand above his head--"and doesn't ever bring it down." He kept waiting, he said, for her to get to the story. But it's as if she's in the air above, circling around.

That seems an apt assessment. In Jazz and Paradise--well written books with much to admire in them, to be sure--I was continually waiting to enter the story and never want to leave it. That didn't happen. What DID happen was that I was continually thinking of other things to do with my time--and that's not the way a writer should hook a reader. Indeed, it didn't hook this one at all.

So truthfully: not my kind thing.

BUT! Abdul suggested I try reading one of her short stories, "Recitatif." Apart from the rather highbrow title that I admit I don't like, I found this story to be a much more engaging straight-through kind of story. In other words, I liked it. Reading it revealed something about myself. (Actually, I'm going to use this opportunity to say I learned something about myself. But the truth is, I already knew this. But reading this story did reinforce what I know of myself.) It is this:

I like stories that move from point A to point whatever, with no meandering asides or pointless-seeming loopdeyloops around minor plots. Look at it like a rolled-up rug: when you kick it open (point A) it should unravel ceaselessly until point whatever. Then bam! Stop. Book's over. A classic novel that uses this structure is Deliverance (OMG I love this book!)

"Recitatif" does this too. For those of you who don't know the story, it's daring for what it does: tell a sweeping narrative that unfolds over about 40 years. John Updike has managed short stories where dozens of years pass in them, but it's a hard thing to pull off. Reading this story you know why. Two girls, one black (Twyla), one white (Roberta) meet at a boarding school--more like a school for wayward girls--when they're about 8 years old. They become friends regardless of race. Then their mothers come and find out about it (actually, Roberta's) and that pretty much ends the friendship.

Flash forward many years and Twyla's working at a diner on the highway. Who should she run into but a mean, hippyish Roberta (this is now 1969) with two of her friends. Roberta blows her off rudely.

Flash forward another many years and they're mothers protesting bussing in their city. Of course they're on opposite sides of the issue. (As far as storytelling goes, they better be!)

Flash forward again and they're older women, a little wary of each other but nevertheless connected by their shared history.

The story at this point hinges on something that may or may not have happened while at the boarding school for wayward girls. And therein lies a problem with the story which I will return to after I impart this here brilliant nugget of wisdom:

What makes this story successful is the thrust of its forward momentum. Its pacing. At no time do we stop, look around, and wander off after something shiny. No,we're moving forward all the way. What makes the passage of time work here is that Morrison focuses the story entirely on these two women, their story. Because of that, she's able to do what she does well: explore race relations in the U.S.

Now I return to what I find is a problem. You tell me: Should a writer make a central element in a story of a event that may or may not have happened? That could be all in the mind? To me, that sounds too much like a literary trick. (And another one of my quirks: I don't care for literary tricks.) Judging by the conclusion of this story, that's what Morrison does. And I'm not entirely sure it works for me.

But what do you think? I'd LOVE to open a dialogue about this story with others. Who has read it? Who wants to read it? Do you agree with me? Disagree? The version of it I read was in Al Young's African American Literature, published by HarperCollins.



Todd said...

As the friend here who described Morrison's "hovering" narrative style, I'll be first to admit inconsistency in citing that as why I had trouble getting into "Song of Solomon" or "Beloved" -- books I wanted to like.

Couldn't the same charge be leveled at much of Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy, whose work I've liked? Or, in those two, is there still more of that quality Harry Crews once suggested was the reliable thing he had going for his novels: "strong narrative line"?

Despite the response of a Morrison fan to whom I first posed this question, I'm skeptical of parsing the question solely acc. to author's or reader's gender or race, since I've felt plenty gripped by the narrative line in Toni Cade Bambara stories, in "Push," by Sapphire, and in novels & stories by Alice Walker.

Doesn't narrative preference, though tied to identity, also usually reach past it? Influences on taste shaped by less visible parts of one's life...some resist sussing out, right?

I get that they're not permanent. So I guess it's time to read Morrison again, soon.

Serena said...

I have not read Morrison at all, but I've heard something similar about the hovering. However, I'm not too worried about asides and meanderings that have a point to the plot or the characters.

I agree I don't like literary tricks either, though I'm sure I am guilty of using them.