Tuesday, 11 July 2006

Review: Beloved: A Novel, Toni Morrison (1987)

His care suggested a family relationship rather than a dying man’s claim. For years they saw each other in full daylight only on Sundays. The rest of the time they spoke or touched or ate in darkness. Predawn darkness and the after light of sunset. So looking at each other intently was a Sunday-morning pleasure and Halle examined her as though storing up what he saw in sunlight for the shadow he saw the rest of the week. And he had so little time. After his Sweet Home work and on Sunday afternoons was the debt work he owed for his mother. When he asked her to be his wife, Sethe happily agreed and then was stuck not knowing the next step. There should be a ceremony, shouldn’t there? A preacher, some dancing, a party, a something.

I’ve started out with a quotation because this is the charm of Morrison’s work: we enter the narrative in the middle of the story: it has always been ‘being told’. We plunge into the stream of the consciousness of the world the characters inhabit. Into the thick of it. We feel the author’s encyclopaedic command of her material: she knows the future and she knows the past.

Gradually, the stream of information permits us to build up a meaningful narrative ourselves. We winnow the depths of this stream like Tennyson’s huge polypi, and the characters quickly come alive. We have seen these people before, although their fantastic stories are new. These are real, living, breathing people.

The story solidifies, becomes concrete, as the daughter, Denver, the mother, Sethe, and the old acquaintance, Paul D, emerge from the stream. When they return from the circus, they find a young woman at 124: it’s Beloved.

Sethe believed [the hunger Beloved displayed for sweet things] was a recovering body’s need—after an illness—for quick strength. But it was a need that went on and on into glowing health because Beloved didn’t go anywhere. There didn’t seem anyplace for her to go. She didn’t mention one, or have much of an idea of what she was doing in that part of the country or where she had been. They believed the fever had caused her memory to fail just as it kept her slow-moving. A young woman, about nineteen or twenty, and slender, she moved like a heavier one or an older one, holding on to furniture, resting her head in the palm of her hand as though it was too heavy for her neck alone.
  “You just gonna feed her? From now on?” Paul D, feeling ungenerous, and surprised by it, heard the irritability in his voice.
  “Denver likes her. She’s no real trouble. I thought we’d wait till her breath was better. She still sounds a little lumbar to me.”
  “Something funny ’bout that gal,” Paul D said, mostly to himself.
  “Funny how?”
  “Acts sick, sounds sick, but she don’t look sick. Good skin, bright eyes and strong as a bull.”
  “She’s not strong. She can hardly walk without holding on to something.”

Beloved battens onto Sethe, who starts talking about her own past, deeply gratified by the unexpected attention she gets from this strange creature. But Paul D doesn’t like her:

From all those Negroes, Beloved was different. Her shining, her new shoes. It bothered him. Maybe it was just the fact that he didn’t bother her. Or it could be timing. She had appeared and been taken in on the very day Sethe and he had patched up their quarrel, gone out in public and had a right good time—like a family. Denver had come around, so to speak; Sethe was laughing; he had a promise of steady work, 124 was cleared up from spirits. It had begun to look like a life. And damn! A water-drinking woman fell sick, got took in, healed, and hadn’t moved a peg since.
  He wanted her out, but Sethe had let her in and he couldn’t put her out of a house that wasn’t his. It was one thing to beat up a ghost, quite another to throw a helpless coloredgirl out in territory infected by the Klan. Desperately thirsty for black blood, without which it could not live, the dragon swam the Ohio at will.

Freedom for blacks lay beyond the Ohio River. Immigrants from another country, they found succour at 124. There, Baby Suggs looked after them, treated their ills, gave them joy, until she died.

Baby Suggs grew tired, went to bed and stayed there until her big old heart quit. Except for an occasional request for color she said practically nothing—until the afternoon of the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to Sete and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but whitepeople. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever.

The personal dynamics of this foursome — Baby Suggs, the grandmother, is already dead when the book opens — the politics, if you will, are strange. You’ve never seen the like before. Sethe and Paul D, Beloved and Sethe, Beloved and Denver, Paul D and Beloved, Denver and Sethe, Denver and Paul D. You don’t know what will happen next: which way will the coin fall: heads or tails, good or bad, virtue or evil.

Freedom may be sweet, but you’ve still got to pay for it:

Pigs were crying in the chute. All day Paul D, Stamp Paid and twenty more had pushed and prodded them from canal to shore to chute to slaughterhouse. Although, as grain growers moved west, St. Louis and Chicago now ate up a lot of the business, Cincinnati was still pig port in the minds of Ohioans. Its main job was to receive, slaughter and ship up the river the hogs that Northerners did not want to live without. For a month or so in the winter any stray man had work, if he could breathe the stench of offal and stand up for twelve hours, skills in which Paul D was admirably trained.

Morrison tells the story her way. Not simple, but complex, difficult, unpolished — the way the lives she describes are: complex, difficult, unpolished. It’s an aesthetic choice, to go through the motions as if the motions could happen, did happen. The nightmare of inbred racism, racial hatred.

Very few had died in bed, like Baby Suggs, and none that he knew of, including Baby, had lived a livable life. Even the educated colored: the long-school people, the doctors, the teachers, the paper-writers and businessmen had a hard row to hoe. In addition to having to use their heads to get ahead, they had the weight of the whole race sitting there. You needed two heads for that. Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way, [Stamp Paid] thought, they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle white folks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.

This is the story of a crisis, one so grave that it appears no one can solve it. A crisis whose roots go so deep there’s no way to disturb them without causing more damage. And the mystery of Beloved remains undisturbed, opaque, as ineffable as the sin of the fathers. It seems as if there really is magic, and a spirit that looks like evil, stirred up by that sin.

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