Peer Review: Home
Is Toni Morrison’s new novel Home every bit “as emotionally rich and devastating as her longer, more celebrated works,” as Don McLeese of Kirkus writes? Or is it, as David L. Ulin describes in the LA Times, “a thin book with some beautiful writing that ultimately comes off as insubstantial and contrived”? Novelist Andre Alexis returns an even darker verdict in the Globe and Mail:
Toni Morrison’s new novel, Home, is deeply flawed. It travels ground Morrison has previously travelled, without bringing new insight. Its characters are not drawn with much subtlety. The violence that is, rightly, an aspect of her depictions of life for African Americans, has begun to feel like just another part of her thematic arsenal. (Violence has become, for Morrison, what child molestation was for Nabokov: an authorial reflex, a cold fascination.)
Before taking Alexis’ word as law, however, let’s remind ourselves that this is a book so emotionally potent that it caused National Public Radio’s reviewer, Heller McAlpin, quite literally to hyperventilate:
I’m not asthmatic, but there were several times when I felt I needed an inhaler or defibrillator or something to catch my breath while reading this devastating, deeply humane — and ever-relevant — book.
According to McAlpin, Morrison has the sort of talent that can even make worn-out old subjects like 400 years of transatlantic slavery or, hypothetically, the virtual extermination of Europe’s Jews, interesting:
There are topics you may think you’ve had enough of — racism, slavery, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust — but then you read a book like Toni Morrison’s new novel and realize, as Samuel Beckett put it, “All has not been said and never will be.”
To some extent, one understands the critical split. Toni Morrison is one of our most contradictory writers: an intellectual with a popular following, she creates artfully structured novels with language that sinks into floridity nearly as often as it cleanly describes. Morrison’s books, far more than Jonathan Franzen’s, belong “solidly to the high-art literary tradition” that he claimed for himself, but she embraced Oprah’s Book Club rather than scorn it, and she has more than reaped its rewards. The woman working the register at my local bookstore lit up when I placed my copy of Home on the counter.
“It’s…” she began, widening her eyes.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“I’ve only read the first three pages,” she said, “but it’s …” she touched her heart, “so emotional. Right away. Lots of feeling.”
There’s a segment of the population that reads and loves Toni Morrison for the same reasons they read and love Nicholas Sparks or Jodi Picoult: they’re writers who tell you what you should be feeling, then provide you with the sentimental stuff to conjure that feeling. And yet it’s hard to imagine Nicholas Sparks writing a sentence like “For excellent reasons of state—because European sources of cultural hegemony were dispersed but not yet valorized in the new country—the process of organizing American coherence through a distancing Africanism became the operative mood of a new cultural hegemony.” This is from Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, a book of literary theory in which Morrison argues that race is inseparable from the way Americans describe their world: “Race has become metaphorical—a way of referring to and disguising forces, events, classes, and expressions of social decay and economic division far more threatening to the body politic than biological ‘race’ ever was.” And so making the case that even as the culture becomes (theoretically) more tolerant, the language that we speak and write in traps us in a perpetual black/white dialectic.
Yet readers who wouldn’t be caught dead caring about such an argument can read and enjoy Beloved or The Bluest Eye. That same public that prefers its sex and violence served in morally acceptable packages love that Morrison’s novels are full of them. In Sula, for example, two separate characters burn to death, a child is flung headfirst into a lake to drown, a sly cosmopolitan hussy steals her best friend’s husband and then forgets him, a woman puts her own leg under a speeding train for the insurance money before throwing herself out of a window, a little girl cuts off her own fingertip to scare off some bullies, etc. In Song of Solomon a total of three characters leap to their probable deaths from great heights; in Beloved, famously, a mother murders her own daughter to save her the pain of slavery. There is a good deal of sex in these novels too—much of it selfish, or freighted, or incestuous.
In the face of such stuff, you can’t help but hold strong opinions. I knew an intellectual-in-training in college who considered Morrison nothing but a penny-dreadfulist who covered up her thrills and chills in PC veneer; as he read Beloved for class he tore each completed page from the spine and dropped it into a fire. And yet one wonders about these too-vocal critics. For all of the talk in the nineties about a colorblind society, no one, Morrison included, can forget, or afford to forget, that she is a black woman in America. Supporters are right to feel protective. Whether or not Morrison is correct about our rhetorical use of black and white as metaphor and what it means, it takes nothing more than a thirty-second perusal of the comments field on any article on the Fox News website (or, for that matter, any website) to assure even the skeptic that racism is alive in American culture.
This is only one of the reasons Morrison’s own career has been a brave one. As a result of her work, beginning with The Bluest Eye, black writing has increasingly grown more important to the larger white readership, without becoming a mimic of white work. It wasn’t always so. As late as 1962, LeRoi Jones could write, in a collection of essays also titled Home:
One of the most persistent and aggravating reasons for the absence of achievement among serious Negro artists, except in Negro music, is that in most cases the Negroes who found themselves in a position to pursue some art, especially the art of literature, have been members of the Negro middle class, a group that has always gone out of its way to cultivate any mediocrity, as long as that mediocrity was guaranteed to prove to America, and recently to the world at large, that they were not really who they were, i.e., Negroes.
Whether or not this could fairly be said to be true of Charles W. Chestnutt, Phyllis Wheatley, or pre-The Fire Next Time James Baldwin, it is most assuredly not descriptive of black arts today. And Toni Morrison, by dedicating her career to the historical novel of black experience, deserves significant credit for telling black stories in all their poetry and complexity. “If she’s so good,” said that fellow classmate of mine, “why doesn’t she write about white people?” Aside from the fact that in A Mercy and Tar Baby she did so quite brilliantly, this remark entirely misses the point. John Freeman is in the right when he reports, in The Boston Globe’s review of Home, that:
…there is no novelist alive who has captured the beauty and democracy of the American vernacular so well. Her books are rich with talk, with riffs, with sass, and with the sounds, especially, of African-American speech.
(Quibble: a vernacular is democratic, i.e. demotic, by definition – though a verna is a “domestic slave,” so it’s possible Freeman is making a fairly profound point here after all.)
So how are we to react when a writer who deserves all of the praise she’s won publishes a new work that is slight, not because of its length, but because, as David Ulin, who admits that he “has long admired Morrison as a moral visionary,” writes in his review, “it is a thin book with some beautiful writing that ultimately comes off as insubstantial and contrived.” Incidents, he thinks, don’t have long enough to develop, but that’s not the biggest problem with Home:
Part of the problem is that everything happens too quickly, with no real sense of what’s at stake. But even more it is the author’s — or the narrator’s — distance, the sense that Morrison is not fully invested in this fictional world. Even in the culminating scene, when Frank and Cee right an ancient wrong, we can’t help feeling disassociated, as if this were a structural inevitability rather than a narrative one.
Critics disagree about the meaning of the book’s length. Since, in America, bigger is better, how can a short book be a good book? Nisha Lilia Diu of The Telegraph, conflating quality and pedigree, assures us it’s possible: “You know, even when it’s a slip of a thing like Home, that a Toni Morrison novel is going to be a big book.” Maggie Galehouse at the Houston Chronicle agrees that “although Home is smaller in scope than her previous works,” nonetheless, “there’s depth in this 147-page story.” And Melissa Maerz at Entertainment Weekly heartens her readers that Home is a “slim but emotionally heavy new novel” (it earns a coveted A-).
So we know at least that Home is big, deep, and emotionally heavy, or else it’s thin, noncommittal, and unconvincing. A reader may be tempted to suspect that since Morrison is such a significant writer, critics tend to find in her new book what they came looking for. If they haven’t enjoyed her last novels, they can write, as Sarah Churchwell does in The Guardian: “Home should be relentless, unsparing, but Morrison relents halfway through, and spares everyone – most of all herself.”
Churchwell also disliked A Mercy—to my mind Toni Morrison’s finest book—and in the course of a short review aligns herself with a number of Morrison’s detractors. She approvingly cites John Updike’s thinly smiling, head-shaking review of A Mercy in The New Yorker, and she resuscitates the not-quite-controversy about some odd similarities between one of Morrison’s own books and a book she edited in the 1970s. She does not mention the National Book Award scandal over Beloved, or murmurs of tokenism from Morrison’s black and white critics, but she does think that Morrison’s books have become simple accusations, collections of unhappy incidents, the mere exposure of prejudice. Churchwell concedes that: “At Morrison’s best, in novels such as Beloved (1987) and Song of Solomon (1977), she did much more than expose: she sang, excoriated, harrowed, educated, mythologised and uplifted.”
Andre Alexis puts the matter even more bluntly. And In doing so, he comes to the crux of both Morrison’s reputation and the book’s real worth:
It’s difficult not to wonder, while reading this novel, if it would have been published in its present state, were it not written by Toni Morrison. So … how could one recommend it?
Well, to begin with, it is written by Toni Morrison. It falls squarely within her universe. It’s like a note sounded in a music that Morrison has been creating for some time and, in context, it’s an interesting addition. It has its virtues as well as its flaws.
Alexis’ measured review is the best available take on a book which is interesting and useful, but which would not, without Toni Morrison’s name attached, have been published by Knopf in a Christmas-paper wrapper with gorgeous typography and a deckle edge. Everything about the physical presentation of Home, from its elegant Trump Mediaeval font to Toni Morrison’s campaign-style poster on the back (she gazes knowingly into the light) advertises this volume as one that will move and inspire. Is it too much to imagine that there are critics who were swept away in the hype? Or that there were other critics, more natural skeptics, who were resistant to this boosterism?
So what’s Home like, and is it worth reading? It is worth reading, but not for the same reasons as Morrison’s previous books. One of the most beautiful facets of her oeuvre, from The Bluest Eye to A Mercy, is the feeling she creates in her readers of being privileged to glimpse a small portion of a rich world. We think we’ve met our main character, but we are mistaken: their history, rich as it is, proves of marginal importance to yet another character, whose genealogy and early life we now learn about in the space of fifty or so compressed, lyric pages. Whether the method works in so short a book as Home (and it mostly doesn’t) it’s worth noting that heaviness of incident, heavily described, has always had the faults of its advantages, as John Irving explained so well in his own 1981 review of Morrison’s Tar Baby:
A novelist’s vice usually resembles his virtue, for what he does best he also tends to do to excess: if he’s good at being lyrical, he’s too lyrical; if a cruel fate or accident seems to attend each character’s childhood, that doom announces itself like a gun going off too long before the bullet’s arrival. Our best and most ambitious writers indulge their vices as freely as their virtues; they are unafraid of them and think it small-minded to exercise restraint.
Irving uses the phrase “fairy tale” to describe one of Morrison’s worlds and he is right insofar as her characters are often both larger than life and psychologically inaccessible. But whereas the fairy-tale features of A Mercy fall perfectly into place alongside lush descriptions of a vanished world, a world more intense and violent and in some ways more beautiful than our own (Tidewater, 1690), the tone and sweep of Home is not so measured. We meet outsized villains like the evil Dr. Scott, who has seemingly carted his sinister gynecological experiments in from a Nazi camp—but although we know that medical crimes were often carried out on unwitting African American victims during the McCarthy era, Dr. Scott never feels like anything more than a cartoon villain. To compare him with the lushly grotesque Mr. D’Ortega in A Mercy or to Milkman’s friend-turned-foe, the gold-eyed Guitar in Song of Solomon, is to realize just how flat he is.
Compare, too, the complexity and the darkness of Virginia in the second half of Song of Solomon with the too-simple world of Home’s Lotus, Georgia. Contrast the clever nicknaming of her characters in Beloved (the whole question of that titular child’s existence being how well she was loved) or Song of Solomon’s Mason Dead (the question of his existence being whether he is a living part of history or a dead materialist), with Home’s unhelpfully monikered Frank Money or John Locke. We see that they have been given obviously metaphorical names for some reason, but what that reason might be is elusive. John Locke, a generous pastor, may well be named for the English philosopher (who made slavery the first word and first subject of his First Treatise on Government) out of a sense of irony, as Locke himself condoned the African slave-trade of his day, or he may not. There is no way of knowing and it’s hard to imagine that anything has been helpfully communicated either way.
The plot: a demobilized veteran of the Korean war, Frank Money, makes his way home from Seattle to a small town outside of Atlanta to rescue his sister Cee from an evil eugenicist. Along the way he wrestles with dark memories of what he’d done oversees, encounters a number of mysterious of helpful characters, and argues—very occasionally—with the author of his story about how well she really knows him.
Morrison’s old techniques don’t serve her here, but they don’t doom the book to failure either. It’s not a major novel, and it should not be read in place of her earlier work, but it says important things about the McCarthyite 1950s by reminding us of a time not long ago—in the living memory of any number of readers—where segregation (hard and soft), prejudice, and small-mindedness were as prominent as they were at any other time in our century. One of the characters in Home cannot find an apartment because of real laws that kept blacks out of white neighborhoods even in northern cities. Another character works at a theater where a “subversive” play is shut down by government thugs.
Home is polemical, rather than dramatic, but it can be read in a sitting and it reminds us of those parts of our past we would rather forget, especially as an antidote to misplaced nostalgia about the 1950s—the purer world, the way things oughtta be.
As in all of Morrison’s novels, the lives of minor characters are spun out at length in Home. The title is a clue to how we may read their struggles – Frank’s journey home, his cruel mother’s attempts to fortify her own home, Lily’s thwarted effort to buy a home – but any of Morrison’s most recent titles provide just as good a key into this particular book. A Mercy: the kindnesses Frank receives on the road are mercies, as is his decision to leave Lily and let her proceed with her life. Love: Frank’s love for Cee is the one thread that holds the story together. And Miss Ethel’s garden in Home is a kind of Paradise:
An aggressive gardener, Miss Ethel [Cee’s savior in Lotus] blocked or destroyed enemies and nurtured plants. Slugs curled and died under vinegar-seasoned water. Bold, confident raccoons cried and ran away when their tender feet touched crushed newspaper or chicken wire placed around plants. Cornstalks safe from skunks slept in peace under paper bags. Under her care pole beans curved, then straightened to advertise their readiness. Strawberry tendrils wandered, their royal-scarlet berries shining in morning rain. Honeybees gathered to salute Illicium and drink the juice. Her garden was not Eden; it was so much more than that.
This paradise is less complex, and so less real, than the places Morrison has painted in other books, but it is clearly an image with meaning for her: a safe, verdant, well-guarded world where black women and men can live in sufficiency and free of fear. One can quibble with particulars of the prose (“bold” and “confident” are synonyms: pick one) or praise other parts (the tender feet crunching that newspaper) but the image as a whole is a powerful one and worth reading holistically.
I don’t agree then with Miles Marshal Lewis, who writes in Ebony that “Morrison will never not know what she’s doing; she’s too long-in-the-tooth as a precise storyteller for that.” Home is not without its missteps, but it provides a good opportunity to celebrate her career and to consider her achievement again with fresh eyes.
John Cotter is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly. His criticism has appeared or will shortly appear in The Quarterly Conversation, Brooklyn Rail, and The Columbia Journal of American Studies. His novel Under the Small Lights is available from Miami University Press and his short fiction will be featured in the next issues of New Genre and Puerto Del Sol.