Saturday, June 2, 2012

Son of Morris

BelovedBeloved by Toni Morrison


As always, spoiler alert. If you don't like spoilers, just read the book, not a review of it. Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer with the novel Beloved, and there is no denying it is compelling. Compelling as a horror film is compelling. Complete with bestiality, child murder, semi-incestuous relationships, the physical incarnation of the wronged, long dead coming to visit, slavery and torture, yes, this has all the fixings of Texas Chainsaw Massacre Ten save two: no chainsaw--there is a handsaw, but no chainsaw--and there is no protagonist.
The story is told via the semi-omniscient narrator, as the omniscient, we feel, must have declined the offer. So, the event, the occurrence, is uncovered through reminiscences as a body bag unzipped in jerks from feet to head: two charred, toeless feet and we feel ill, but then are given twenty pages for the nausea to subside, and as we catch our breath the legs are shown to the hips and we are retching on hands and knees, on and on until the entirety lays, in all its naked, mangled gore, open to our uncomprehending eyes.
But then, somehow, the known abomination, like the first bubbles of a pot coming to boil, no longer scalds, no longer repels us with the vehemence we had assumed we would have, and only then is the full horror realized: we are in the mind of the mother of two girls who would tear her toddler's head off with a hand saw, who would take her infant by the ankles and smash her skull against a doorway, and we, appallingly, astoundingly, inhumanly, can--but how can we?--sympathize. The only abomination that exists is an unexplained abomination; when explained it becomes no more than a horrifying, but understandable, sacrifice, complete with the innocent, opened throat purchasing the life of the sinner.
Scripture speaks of the "spirit of restraint" being removed from men in the last days. Suddenly hell seems merely to be earth given over: we are the demons that freely roam; we are men unrestrained; we are devils incarnate. It is a tremendous testimony to authorial skill that any reader ever finished the book; it is a tremendous testimony to human resilience that the myriad readers that did finish the book are not mad; indeed, the entirety is a tremendous testimony to the human ability to steep oneself in nescient oblivion. For this is based on a true story.

Well, if you didn't find anything above that would have convinced you not to read it, you won't find anything here. First off, I was biased from the beginning: this is just not the type of topic that any artist can safely touch. Obviously no white author in his right mind would approach it, and honestly, I don't think the man exists that's dense enough to put his hand to this particular plough. So that leaves a black female. Intrat: Toni Morrison. But this has a whole host of problems itself: how can this story be written without dumping miracle-grow and two weeks of sun and dewy mornings onto the mordant, monthly mowed lawn of cynicism that is my heart? For the benefit of the dense child in the back of the class, it can't. If a black authoress is going to write a story about a black slave woman killing her child, she could do so in Italy without me batting an eyelash. But if she's here, in America, where we had slaves and "we all feel real, real bad 'bout it; shore are sorry," then I will undoubtedly view the entire thing as a guilt trip. If Morrison doesn't care (and she shouldn't), then kudos to her; I'm never reading another page she wrote if I can help it.
Then there's this lovely culmination of events. First, she doesn't win the Pulitzer. Fine, leave it there and we're all okay. She's already on Oprah's bleeding heart book club, so she's going to make bank off of a bunch of upper class white women who want to feel good about doing good things (so long as it doesn't involve actually, say, buying dinner for the homeless guy ten blocks from their house), and people like me might eventually read her book on purpose, of all things. But no, the art society was too deeply offended: was she not a woman? Was she not black? Why, then, did she not get the Pulitzer? Because she was a black woman? So the Pulitzer commission group thingy gave it to her the next year, and I think she should feel insulted: her book ought to stand on its own two feet, regardless of whose picture is on the cover. Either it's good enough to win the Pulitzer or it isn't, and we ought to treat her the same as all the white male authors; it's not like she's handicapped. But then, to make things even worse, she ends up winning the Nobel Prize for literature.
The argument could be made that the book was actually that good. But it had too much baggage for any American to make that claim without a bias in one direction or the other. I, sick of the "save the third-world starving AIDS infected Eskimo Lesbian whales" crowd, will write it off out of hand (which is unfair, but I don't particularly mind: as I'm going to snub one book or another, I might as well snub in such a way as to offend the maximum number of people that annoy me as is humanly possible), and all of the people that like lying to themselves that they're doing God's work by destroying sweatshops (really? God wants all those families that got a dollar a week to starve?) and forgiving third-world debt (because God definitely wants all those dictators to have more money for weapons with which to commit genocide) will praise the book regardless of how good or bad it is. The only way they'd praise it more is if Morrison had made Sethé, the lead character, into a lesbian who had rebelled against her master, who just happened to be a rich, white, Presbyterian Minister. Cause they're just evil.
But c'est la vie. The book was dark, depressing, and only had one semi-main character that I could bring myself to semi-like, and that was Denver, the swinging infant. Everyone else just sucked: you've got a woman that murdered one daughter and completely ignored the other one for twenty years because she loved them so much, then you've got dying granny who likes colours, then a former slave guy that liked calves more than he ought to and sleeps both with Sethé and her ghost-daughter Beloved, and then you have Denver. There are also two noble characters that appear occasionally, and each gets a page or two toward the end (one is now-dead fond-of-rainbows granny). Everyone else is simply vile.
Possibly worth having read, but definitely not worth reading.

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