Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Sula by Toni Morrison

As Reverend Deal moved into his sermon, the hands of the women unfolded like pairs of raven's wings and flew high above their hats in the air.  They did not hear all of what he said; they head the one word, or phrase, or inflection that was for them the connection between the event and themselves.  For some it was the term "Sweet Jesus."  And they saw the Lamb's eye and the truly innocent victim: themselves.  They acknowledged the innocent child hiding in the corner of their hearts, holding a sugar-and-butter sandwich.  That one.  The one who lodged deep in their fat, thin, old young skin, and was the one the world had hurt.  Or they thought of their son newly killed and remembered his legs in short pants and wondered where the bullet went in.  Or they remembered how dirty the room looked when their father left home and wondered if that is the way the slim, young Jew felt, he who for them was both son and lover and in whose downy face they could see the sugar-and-butter sandwiches and feel the oldest and most devastating pain there is: not the pain of childhood, but the remembrance of it.

I love buying used books when I travel because when I pick them up, months or even years later, they remind me of where they came from.  It wouldn't be the same with new books, I think--the appeal must lie in the way they must have been possessed, and read, by someone who lived there, or at the very least passed through there.  I bought this copy of Sula in a dusty bookshop in Virgin, Utah, population 596.  In 2000 the town of Virgin, Utah passed a law mandating that every resident possess a firearm.  There's something of a Morrisonian touch there--it seems like each of her books has a "town" who is as much a character as anyone else, and one which can be quite menacing.

In Sula, the town is Medallion, Ohio, which is in every other way not very much like Virgin, Utah (though I think she'd like that name, too).  In the black district, known as The Bottom despite its place in the high hills looking over the majority-white valley, two girls grow up as friends: the conservative Nel and the brash, wild Sula.  Sula is the kind of girl who cuts off her own fingertip to scare off a group of male harassers, as if to say, you don't know what I'm capable of.  Sula and Nel bond over childhood joys as well as traumas, as when they accidentally drown a small child in the river.  (They're swinging him around by his arms and lose their grip--it's weird, and not totally realistic, in a way that's typical of Morrison's novels.)  Later, Sula comes back from a long absence, sleeps with Nel's husband, and generally attracts a bad reputation.

It's tempting, and perhaps not incorrect, to see Sula and Nel as complimentary halves of a single representation.  Sula is the one who leaves, Nel is the one who stays home.  Sula is the whore, Nel is the respectable woman.  Sula is the id, Nel is the ego.  Morrison, as always, is too complex and too cagey to let the story resolve into those easy binaries.  She goes out of her way to show Nel in the process of developing and discovering a discrete self:

She gout out of bed and lit the lamp to look in the mirror.  There was her face, plain brown eyes, three braids and the nose her mother hated.  She looked for a long time and suddenly a shiver ran through her.

"I'm me," she whispered.  "Me."

Nel didn't know quite what she meant, but on the other hand she knew exactly what she meant.

"I'm me.  I'm not their daughter.  I'm not Nel.  I'm me.  Me."

This passage rings very true for me.  Haven't you ever had that late night sensation that there is a you which is somehow separate from and beneath your face, your body, your name, all of that?

Sula seems not to need this realization, for her own discrete selfhood has never been in doubt.  When she sleeps with Nel's husband, Morrison attributes it to a sense of self so resolute and complete that it borders on solipsism.  Confronting her, Nel reminds Sula that such an existence is lonely, but Sula replies, "Yes.  But my lonely is mine.  Now your lonely is somebody else's."  Morrison is hyper-aware of the demands that other people--husbands, children, whole towns and countries--place on us, and the ways in which they limit and define us.  And yet, Nel is right--which of us would take a life as lonely as Sula's, no matter whose lonely it was?

These moments are the heart of Sula, and they're extremely moving.  But they are surprisingly brief.  Sula enters the book late and is ushered out early.  Instead Morrison, as she does in her other novels, dwells lengthily on the figures at the novel's edges.  Figures like Shadrack, the vagrant war veteran who inaugurates The Bottom's National Suicide Day, or the deweys, a trio of adopted boys who no one can tell apart (though they don't look alike) and who never age.  Nel and Sula have sisters, brothers, mothers, grandmothers, all of whom interest Morrison at least as much as the pair themselves.

In a novel like Song of Solomon, this kind of things works well because it helps to define and complement the magnetic character of Milkman, whose gradual embrace of his family history is central to the novel.  Sula is too steely and removed, and too briefly sketched, to serve the same kind of role, and Nel pales against the colorful supporting cat.  As a result, Sula never really coheres in a way that would allow its better aspects to really hit home.


Brittany said...

It's been a long time, but I remember loving the novel and thinking that it taught me so much about various female-female relationships and helped me better understand the ones that I am a part of.

Christopher said...

I am not a part of any female-female relationships. Am I missing out?