Toni Morrison, Jazz (1992)
What it’s about: Harlem, New York City, the 1920s. The story centres around a love triangle between Joe, a middle-aged African American door-to-door salesman, Dorcas, his 18 year-old lover, whom he shoots to death, and Violet, Joe’s long-suffering wife, who goes to Dorcas’ funeral and attempts to mutilate the corpse with a knife. The story is told by a chorus of narrators – sometimes Joe and Violet, but more often by unidentified voices – and slowly the dynamics of the love triangle come into clearer focus. Gradually we learn the troubled histories of the characters: Dorcas was orphaned after her mother died when their apartment was deliberately set on fire, and raised by her aunt Alice; Violet grew up in poverty in the Deep South and was raised by her grandmother, True Belle, after her mother Rose Dear committed suicide by throwing herself down a well; and Joe grew up without his parents, and learns in adulthood that his mother is now living in the forest and known as “Wild”. Violet and Joe meet working in a cotton field in a place called Palestine, and marry and move to Harlem (referred to as “the City”) to find a better life.
Violet and Joe’s lives are also connected, unknowingly, by Golden Gray, a white, blond-haired man who was the son of a white woman, Vera Louise Gray and one of her slaves, Henry LesTroy. Golden Gray was raised in Baltimore by True Belle (Vera’s former slave and long-term maid) who encourages him in adulthood to find his father. After setting off to Virginia to find LesTroy, Golden Gray finds Joe’s mother in the forest, heavily pregnant. He takes her to LesTroy’s cabin where she gives birth to Joe, and never returns to Baltimore, living in the woods with Wild, while LesTroy helps bring up Joe.
Back in the present, Violet, now middle-aged and childless after a series of miscarriages, sinks into depression and channels her maternal instincts towards a baby doll and a pet parrot. Joe meets Dorcas while selling feminine beauty products at Dorcas’ aunt’s house, and they begin an affair in secret, meeting at the apartment of his upstairs neighbour Malvonne. Joe showers love and gifts on Dorcas who is initially delighted, but eventually loses interest in him and turns her attentions to a boy her own age. Joe follows Dorcas to a party and shoots her. Dorcas dies without revealing Joe as her attacker, enabling him to escape. After the disturbance at the funeral, Violet is nicknamed “Violent”. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with Dorcas’ aunt, and takes a photo of Dorcas home to put on her and Joe’s mantlepiece. Eventually Violet and Joe are reconciled, mediated in part by their new friendship with Dorcas’ best friend Felice.
Why it’s a classic: Jazz is rather less well-known than Song of Solomon, which won the National Book Award in 1977 and put Morrison on the map as a serious literary talent, or her slavery narrative Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and was made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey (a huge supporter and promoter of Morrison’s work). Nonetheless, Jazz was cited by the Nobel Committee in 1993 as the novel for which Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature – becoming the first African-American woman and only the eighth female laureate to do so. Jazz was a fitting selection for the prize, showcasing Morrison’s enduring sociological interests (the African-American experience, the past persistently informing the present, the legacy of racism, poverty and childhood abuse) and her stunning command of language in all its musicality and power.
As its title suggests, Jazz is about the ascendency of jazz in the 1920s, though as it is felt and experienced by ordinary African-American people, rather than Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and the musical greats of the age. Morrison presents jazz as the soundtrack to a generation of African-American emigres to Harlem, inspired by older black musical traditions like gospel and the blues, but with a danger and subversive energy that characterised the new liberation and optimism of life in the big smoke. “I was struck by the modernity that jazz anticipated and directed, and by its unreasonable optimism,” Morrison wrote. “Whatever the truth or consequences of individual entanglements and the racial landscape, the music insisted that the past might haunt us, but it would not entrap us. It demanded a future—and refused to regard the past as “an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself at the crack and no power on earth could lift the arm that held the needle.”” Jazz is the fuel that feeds the restless desire of the characters, whose behaviour follows similarly unpredictable and explosive trajectories. It’s the music of the young, of sexuality and possibly of criminality, disavowing the simplicity and moral certainty of gospel prayer sung to God, reflecting something of the social upheavals of the urban 1920s.
Morrison went a step further and used jazz as the structuring principle of her writing. “Primary among these features… was invention. Improvisation, originality, change. Rather than be about those characteristics, the novel would seek to become them. I had written novels in which structure was designed to enhance meaning; here the structure would equal meaning. The challenge was to expose and bury the artifice and to take practice beyond the rules. I didn’t want simply a musical background, or decorative references to it. I wanted the work to be a manifestation of the music’s intellect, sensuality, anarchy; its history, its range, and its modernity.” Accordingly, Morrison’s writing is like a piece of great jazz, bending backwards and forwards in time, its initial themes of love and betrayal introduced early on and then picked up and told and retold again in countless variations, the story moving between different voices in the way that different instruments in a jazz band pass themes and riffs back and forth. Even without the added lustre of Morrison’s reputation, Jazz is an astonishing piece of writing, a brilliant technical achievement that translates jazz into seductive musical prose, and deserves recognition as one of the quintessentially American novels of the 20th century.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A giant bouquet. I wasn’t planning to read another Toni Morrison novel so soon after reviewing The Bluest Eye, but Morrison’s death earlier this month sent me back to the bookshelf to re-read my favourites of her novels and essays, and tackle those I have yet to read. I plunged into it eagerly as if into a warm bath, and lingered there as long as I could. Bathing in warm water isn’t a bad metaphor to describe the intense pleasure one gets from reading Morrison: every sentence is glorious, perfectly weighted and thrums with musical intensity, and even when you’re not quite sure who is speaking or where the hell the story is going, the moment to moment sensation of being inside the novel is totally absorbing. Despite the horrors of the story and the suffering of the lead characters, Jazz is a surprisingly warm, funny and optimistic book. Morrison understands the excitement and energy of life in a big city, especially to outsiders who have moved there to escape constricting small towns, and the radical possibilities for growth and renewal that city life offers. “I’m crazy about this City,” one of her narrators says. “Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see looking faces and it’s not easy to tell which are people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is shadow where any blasé thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things…. Here comes the new. Look out. There goes the sad stuff. The bad stuff. The things-nobody-could-help stuff. The way everybody was then and there. Forget that. History is over, you all, and everything’s ahead at last.”
Morrison is also alive to and acutely interested in the small day-to-day triumphs and humiliations of romantic love – for the beloved, for the City, for life itself. Love pulls Joe “like a needle through the groove of a Bluebird record. Round and round about the town” and inspires in Violet thoughts worthy of a Bessie Smith song: “Blues man. Black and bluesman. Blacktherefore blue man. Everybody knows your name. Where-did-she-go-and-why man. So-lonesome-I-could-die man. Everybody knows your name.” Near the novel’s close, Joe says to his murdered lover, “I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it. I saw you and made up my mind. My mind. And I made up my mind to follow you too. That’s something I know how to do from way back.”
The book’s only major misstep, it seems to me, is the 40 or so pages she devotes to Golden Gray. While it’s an interesting slice of family folklore, it seems to be lifted from another, longer historical novel like Song of Solomon. It adds little to our understanding of Violet and Joe, at least relative to the amount of time Morrison spends on this part of the story, and stands out as a jarring, overtly dissonant note in the otherwise seamless flow of her narrative. Though it doesn’t quite come together as narrative, the Golden Gray section sings with Morrison’s sonorous prose, so beautiful that it stops your breath: “Soaked leaves disentangling themselves one from another. The plop of nuts and the flutter of partridge removing their beaks from their hearts. Squirrels, having raced to limb tips, poise there to assess danger.”
The many agonies of the characters makes the surprising “happy ending” of Joe and Violet’s reconciliation all the more hard-won. “You got anything left to you to love, anything at all, do it“, Alice informs Violet, who later learns “what she had forgotten until this moment: that laughter is serious. More complicated, more serious than tears.” We leave them in their comfortable middle-aged love, as the novel’s final voice – Morrison herself, perhaps, reminds us that not all love is so successful or so privileged: “I envy them their public love. I myself have only known it in secret, shared it in secret and longed, aw longed to show it—to be able to say out loud what they have no need to say at all: That I have loved only you, surrendered my whole self reckless to you and nobody else. That I want you to love me back and show it to me. That I love the way you hold me, how close you let me be to you…. But I can’t say that aloud; I can’t tell anyone that I have been waiting for this all my life and that being chosen to wait is the reason I can. If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.” Insight like that, conveyed in such gorgeous language, has no place but in a great work of literature. Morrison’s death is a huge loss to literature, but thank God that we had her for as long as we did.
Quotable Quotes: “And when Spring comes to the City people notice one another in the road; notice the strangers with whom they share aisles and tables and the space where intimate garments are laundered. Going in and out, in and out the same door, they handle the handle; on trolleys and park benches they settle thighs on a seat in which hundreds have done it too…. It’s the time of year when the City urges contradiction most, encouraging you to buy street food when you have no appetite at all; giving you a taste for a single room occupied by you alone as well as a craving to share it with someone you passed in the street…. What can beat bricks warming up to the sun? The return of awnings. The removal of blankets from horses’ backs. Tar softens under the heel and the darkness under bridges changes from gloom to cooling shade.”