Thursday, November 29, 2007

Beloved by Toni Morrison

When eminent critic Harold Bloom says that there are only four great living American writers (McCarthy, DeLillo, Roth, and Pynchon), it is not difficult to cry sexism and racism at Toni Morrison's omission, and I say that as a person that does not bandy those terms around lightly. Yes, those four are truly great, but why not Morrison, who's style is as vivid, inspired, and tightly controlled as any of those four, and whose works speak to something truly American? In a recent poll, Beloved was voted the greatest work of literature in the past 25 years, just ahead of DeLillo's Underworld.

Beloved is the story of Sethe, an ex-slave who now lives inCincinnati with her daughter, Denver. Eighteen years prior to the main action of the story (which has a snaking, elliptical plotline), Sethe was a runaway slave living with her grandmother Baby Suggs, when suddenly she spied her old slaveowner walking into the backyard, and instead of allowing her to return to slavery, slit her baby daughter's (unnamed, not Denver) throat--and would also have done the same to Denver and her two sons, Howard and Buglar, if she had not been caught. After Sethe was released from prison and the Civil War over, she continues to be haunted by the ghost of the murdered baby until the spirit is chased out by Paul D, a fellow slave from Sethe's former plantation who comes to live with her in Cincinnati. But then the spirit takes the form of a young girl (the age the child would have been if it had lived) who emerges from the nearby lake and comes to live with Sethe, Denver, and Paul D. Lots of other crazy and magical shit happens, and all the while you learn the strange and sordid details of Sethe and Paul D's past lives as slaves. Morrison is particularly graphic about some of the details she feels have been lost in slave narratives, such as rampant slave murder and sexual abuse.

I do not think that Beloved speaks to me as it might to an African-American, and so I haven't formed an emotional connection with it like I did other books I've read this year, but it's clear reading it that it's a true monument of American fiction. It is complex, imaginative, and brilliantly but tightly conceived. Jonathan Demme made a movie about it starring Oprah, but I cannot believe that that movie is any good--partly because it doesn't seem like Beloved, which is frequently strange and obtuse, could translate to the screen, and partly because I'm not sure Oprah really has the chops to take on a character like Sethe, who is troubled, complex, and somewhat otherworldy, none of which describes Oprah.

Highly recommended.

4 comments:

Carlton said...

Pynchon is a hack.

Christopher said...

Do you actually believe that?

Carlton said...

I don't even know who that guy is, my friend.
Ignorant.

Nihil Novum said...

I don't believe it. I start Against the Day and I liked it. But it's long.