I picked up a copy of Beloved by Toni Morrison from my neighborhood library box the other day. The words on the cover were, “A Masterpiece…Magnificent.. Astounding.. Overpowering.” In the upper right hand corner was a seal, “Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.” Having read nothing by Morrison, I scooped the book up and took it home. The story began:
124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. (Beloved by Toni Morrison, Penguin Group, 1988, pg. 1)
124? I stopped to wonder what the number represented. A house, perhaps? Or a prison number? A few pages later, I decided 124 was an address. On page 6, a man arrived to sit on the front porch of 124. His name was Paul D. I’m told he was one of the ‘Sweet Home men.” Had I missed something? I perused pages 1-6 again to see if I had. I hadn’t. By page 9, Paul D has entered 124 to sit before the fire. Sethe, his hostess, tells him Mr. Garner is dead and Mrs. Garner has a lump in her throat the size of a sweet potato. I frowned and wondered who the Garners were. Again I turned back the pages but found no earlier reference.
As I continued to read more characters appeared, each with no antecedent. Morrison’s technique, apparently, was to invite me into her head and then turn off the lights so that I was left to bang my shins against the furniture of her mind. I spend more time stumbling through plot geography than I do becoming engrossed in it. Would it have broken some cardinal rule, for example, if the novel had begun: The house at 124 had a spiteful spirit?
Perhaps I cling too fiercely to the old ways. When I was in high school, my English teacher told me that writing to be understood wasn’t as important as writing so as not to be misunderstood. Over the years, I’ve clung to this higher goal and know how difficult it is difficult to attain. Language is nothing but strata. Over centuries, meaning becomes silted with nuance so that a word can have contrary meanings. Sanguine refers to being bloodthirsty or hopeful, depending upon its context, for example.
I admit, given my ancient standards, I might have thrown Ulysses in James Joyce’s face and told him to learn how to write a sentence. Still, I do not think it outrageous to ask writers to use words, not in a way that blinds me, but that opens my eyes.
I have not given up on Toni Morrison, of course. Not after 9 pages. I shall read her Noble Prize winning novel to its end. How will I feel when I have finished it, I don’t know. Sanguine, I suppose.
(Courtesy of wikipedia.com)