A Toni Morrison read-through, part 2

Back in February, I kicked off my project to read all of Toni Morrison’s published novels with a reread of The Bluest Eye, which I liked, and Sula, which I loved and ended up being my favorite of the month. I was humming along, and then a slump hit.

I don’t blame Song of Solomon for my reading slump, and to be clear, I loved the book. However, it definitely contributed to a reading slump that I’m still working through. I tend to read at a two-books-a-week clip, and right now I’m lucky if I finish one book a week, even with short novels and story collections. Work stress and general anxiety about the state of the world were the root causes, but Song of Solomon was also not a book I could speed through. As a reader, I mark this book as the point were Morrison became THE Toni Morrison. Her storytelling is dense, her prose is immaculately crafted, and even with those hurdles she is still so generous to the reader. It’s a book that takes effort, but that effort is rewarded at the turn of every page. It’s really a remarkable novel.

Song of Solomon represented a lot of changes for Morrison, including her first novel with a male protagonist, Macon “Milkman” Dead III. As I mentioned, her third novel is also an elevation of her writing style, with denser prose, and more elaborate storytelling. She packs a lot of plot into the novel’s 337 pages, but she guides the reader through the story with ease. The book is a Bildungsroman set in Michigan in the mid-20th century, and Morrison utilizes offhanded mentions of national events to set the tone for the novel, grounding it in a specific time and place that was missing from her earlier two novels.

The novel opens with the death The Seven Days member Robert Smith, serving as the catalyst for Milkman’s birth, and the first half of a bookend for the ages. From his birth, we follow Milkman’s growth from boy to man, as he searches for some understanding of his family and himself. So much of the novel is about the origin of a name. Morrison understands that our names are our own origin story, and as Milkman traverses the country seeking answers on how he became the third Macon Dead, the reader is able to discover a fuller picture of him and the story as a whole.

Morrison’s employment of a male main character is a fascinating change for her. One thing that was notable for me while reading this book is that Morrison’s eye allowed me to see just how poorly the men treat the women in this novel. We stand by as Milkman disregards each of the women in his life, and we are able to see the emotional scars he has left on each of them. But Morrison uses this to her advantage, allowing Milkman to genuinely learn and grow as a person throughout the novel. In the end some of his wrongs can never be righted, but the readers are left with a portrait of a complicated man who spends his story trying to be better.

Even though Song of Solomon was one of the reasons I fell into a reading slump, I could not help but be blown away by it. It’s a masterpiece, and a classic for a reason. In a recent article, The New York Times compared Song of Solomon to Greek Mythology and Superhero origin stories, and reading this novel in that frame of mind makes it sing. So much of it is about Milkman discovering his “power” and who he is, and the novel’s ending (a perfect bookend to the opening scene) leaves the reader to decide exactly what they believe.

If Song of Solomon slowed me down, Tar Baby was the brick wall I had to climb over. I’m going to be completely transparent with you, if I hadn’t been reading this as a project, I would not have finished Tar Baby. Through the first half of the novel, I felt like I was a sophomore in high school again, forced to read a book that I struggled to get into. It wasn’t until about 100 pages in that I began to see what Morrison was trying to do, and it took even longer into the book for it to all come together.

At its core, Tar Baby is a love story between Jadine, a worldly Black model, and Son, a working-class Black man from northern Florida. Jadine has been afforded wealth and privilege thanks to the white Street family, who employ Jadine’s aunt and uncle as their servants, and we spend the majority of the novel with these six characters at the Street’s mansion on an island in the Caribbean. Jadine and Son’s coupling shatters the fragile construction these characters’ relationships with each other, and allows Morrison to unpack Blackness’ fraught relationship to whiteness, and the destructive power of racism and classism.

Like Song of Solomon, Tar Baby is an evolution for Morrison as, for the first time, white characters play a prominent role in the story, allowing her to examine racism head-on. The Streets have what appears to be a great relationship with Jadine, having funded much of her schooling and career up to this point, and they also seem to have a congenial relationship with Sydney and Ondine, Jadine’s relatives and their staff. Morrison constructs this “post-racism” relationship early in the book, and lets the facade drop as soon as Son enters the story.

As I was reading this book in early 2021, the United States was once again having a national conversation about the n-word, and particularly white people’s “right” to use it. Morrison does not have a habit of utilizing this word in her writing, but her employment of the slur in this novel is crucial to the plot, and each time the Streets use it, it is felt so viscerally. Early on in the novel, it slips out of Margaret Street’s mouth while conversing with Ondine, and while they both excuse its usage (for very different reasons), the moment allows the reader to glean insight into the underbelly of their working relationship. Later, it is fully weaponized by Margaret in a moment that is as close as one will get to being slapped by a book. The word’s causal usage early on was followed with a slightly-embarrassed “oh, you know I don’t mean it” from Margaret, only to later be used with the full venom of its history, a moment to show Ondine and the reader exactly how Margaret saw Ondine and Sydney.

I mentioned earlier how long it took me to grasp what Morrison was going for with this story, only for the novel to become a tsunami of Morrison’s own making. Even with that, I left the book feeling unsatisfied. Of the four novels I’ve finished so far, Tar Baby rests at the bottom of the list, though that shouldn’t be taken as some measure of its quality. It’s a fascinating reading experience, but it didn’t leave me with the kind of high that her previous three novels did. It is still a worthwhile read, but it can’t help but feel like a steep valley between two titans.

Next up, I have a reread of a genuine masterpiece, and Morrison’s most acclaimed work, Beloved. I am taking a small break before starting to get myself out of my reading slump before tackling it. Afterwards, I will continue on to Jazz, which is notable for being Morrison’s final novel before winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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