Toni Morrison’s Beloved is one of my favorite novels of any time period or genre, and since Song of Solomon is considered her second-best work, it’s been on my to-be-read list for a long time. It’s not quite the masterwork that Beloved is, but it’s still a great literary achievement of phenomenal scope, another example of how Morrison can take universal themes and express them through individual characters and simple stories.
Song of Solomon is the story of the Dead family, a black family separated by disagreement, by location, and by financial situation into two branches. The book’s central character, Macon “Milkman” Dead, is born in the opening pages, and the central plot strand follows his lifelong search for identity, although it’s not until the book’s final third that he realizes himself that that’s what he’s seeking. Along the way, he breaks with his father and forges a relationship with his paternal aunt, then reunites with his father and sets off on an ill-fated mission that harkens back to the origins of the family split. The novel uses this quest by the grandson of a freed slave to explore questions of racial identity, the double oppression faced by black women, and the uplifting and destructive powers of love.
The book is rife with references to the Bible and Greek mythology, including the unusual character names that are par for the course with Morrison, all bringing us insight into the characters themselves. Milkman has a sister named First Corinthians, named by her father by the random selection of a Bible verse, but named by Morrison to signify the woman’s role as someone who attempts to bring people together. (The apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was occasioned by reports of possible schisms in the fledgling Christian church in Corinth.) Morrison also works in allusions to other stories and novels, some obvious, such as the way the character Circe serves a similar purpose to her Greek namesake, and some more debatable, such as the resemblance of Hagar, named after Abraham’s servant and concubine, to Nately’s whore from Catch-22. The heavy yet seamless use of allusions and references make reading a good Morrison novel into a textural experience.
Next up: The Pickwick Papers, by my high school nemesis, Chuckie Dickie. I’ve got 600 pages to go, so it might be a while before my next book writeup.