I posted a blog entry on Matt Harrison, Aaron Crow, and two other pitchers yesterday, and my latest draft blog entry is on Christian Colon and Gary Brown; I was going to see Greg Peavey today but was rained out. I’m tentatively scheduled to be on ESPNEWS on Monday in the 2 pm hour but it’s not confirmed.
Toni Morrison’s Jazz is the second part of what she later termed a trilogy that began with Beloved, one of my favorite novels by any author, #5 on my ranking of my favorite novels, and while it’s not as strong as its predecessor it’s still an above-average novel that explores the post-slavery experience while using a very different plot and narrative style.
Jazz is built around the same core theme as Beloved – the weight of history on African-Americans, and how much responsibility they bear for how that history has affected them. The novel opens with the story of how Joe Trace killed his young mistress, after which his slightly crazy wife Violet becomes unhinged and attempts to mutilate the girl’s corpse at the funeral. From there, Morrison turns the clock back in fits and starts, with abrupt changes in style and narrator that apparently are an attempt to mimic jazz in prose form, in a way that uses Joe’s mistress, Dorcas*, as a symbol for vices that hold the African-American community back while also explaining the appeal of those vices by rooting her own bad behavior in the violent deaths of her parents. Joe and Violet come from similarly complex backgrounds that explain their actions and have them standing in for their genders or for classes of African-Americans in the fifty years after slavery had ended but freedom was still an elusive goal, as shown in one of the most powerful lines in the book: “I don’t want to be a free nigger; I want to be a free man.”
*I took the name as ironic, as Dorcas is the name of a dressmaker in the Bible, while Morrison’s Dorcas is raised by an aunt who mends clothes. Dorcas herself doesn’t make or repair clothing, but she was mended by her aunt.
Jazz‘s second theme, the core romance between Joe and Violet, wasn’t evident to me until the final section of the book, and I imagine I’d interpret many of the earlier sections differently if I reread it. (And that’s why I’m telling you about it.) The tragedy that lies at the heart of the plot is nowhere near as simple as it first appears: Joe has killed his mistress but didn’t face charges, while Violet seems to have lost her mind as a result of the betrayal and crime. While I wouldn’t call the book’s ending an absolution for either of them, Morrison creates enough moral ambiguity as she unfurls the story of Joe’s upbringing and the affair that she creates a path for the two of them to emerge as a stronger couple once a small chance encounter gives them a measure of closure. There’s a whiff of blaming-the-victim in the back story, but I had to wonder if that was part of Morrison’s point – that our actions, especially selfish ones, can have dangerous consequences. And maybe I just like the idea of a couple surviving tragedies personal and societal and making use of a somewhat undeserved second chance.
Beloved remains, for me, the better and more powerful novel, but Morrison opened up her style a little to allow for more wordplay and humor, which wouldn’t have been appropriate in the earlier novel’s darker plot. When one fringe (white) character’s father learns that his daughter has become pregnant through an affair with a black man, he is displeased, and even in the middle of a slow-motion train wreck Morrison still slips in a little wit:
His left hand patted around the air searching for something: a shot of whiskey, his pipe, a whip, a shotgun, the Democratic platform, his heart – Vera Louise never knew.
But a major part of why I love Morrison is the way she handles words like an expert chef handles his ingredients, making the finished product more than the sum of its parts. If Morrison wasn’t slyly referring to herself in this line about people in a long march who came from different parts of the country, she inadvertently described her own style in the process:
… and who, when they spoke, regardless of the accent, treated language like the same intricate, malleable toy designed for their play.
Next up: Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning debut novel, The White Tiger.