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Books: Paradise Found

17 minute read
Paul Gray

After finishing her sixth novel, Jazz, published in 1992, Toni Morrison began casting about for the subject of her next book. Constant reading, a habit and passion she developed as a little girl, eventually led her to an obscure chapter in 19th century U.S. history, shortly after the Civil War: the westward emigration of former slaves into the sparsely settled territories of Oklahoma and beyond. Some found the promise of a new life in wide-open spaces, touted in numerous newspaper advertisements in the 1870s, irresistible, and a challenge besides. Morrison was struck by a caveat that often appeared in those ads: “Come Prepared or Not at All.”

As she began imagining how this historical material might generate a work of fiction, Morrison bumped into one of the banes of creative artists everywhere: the intrusion of the outside world into the space of private concentration. Drat the luck, in October 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“I was so happy that I had a real book idea in progress,” she says of the beleaguered period following the announcement. “If I hadn’t, I would have thought, ‘Uh-oh, can I ever write a novel again?'” At that moment, deluged by congratulations, invitations and preparations, never mind another novel, Morrison found herself stymied by her acceptance speech. She had no free time to work on it, and when she stole some, she produced nothing she liked. “I called someone at the Nobel Committee,” she remembers, “and I said, ‘Look, if you’re going to keep giving prizes to women–and I hope you do–you’re going to have to give us more warning. Men can rent tuxedos. I have to get shoes, I have to get a dress.'”

Her friend, the designer Bill Blass, rescued her, taking her into his fitting rooms and outfitting her for her appearance at the awards ceremony in Stockholm. More than four years later, Morrison still grows dreamy and wide-eyed at her introduction to haute couture. “They had everything; they had all these people around trying to make something work on me. On me.”

Morrison has learned since, of course, that the Nobel Prize carries burdens somewhat heavier than the problem of what to wear to the celebration. Although every writer drifts into daydreams of winning the prize, actually having it can produce some nightmarish side effects. A crushing mantle of gravitas descends on the winners.

People honored for making up stories or poems or plays are then expected to make pronouncements, in front of packed houses, on public issues. As an African-American woman, Morrison has faced such expectations constantly. “Most of the questions I get after readings or talks,” she says, “are anthropological or sociological or political. They are not about literary concerns.”

And as an African-American woman, Morrison knew that some people would believe, even if they wouldn’t say it out loud, that the notoriously inconsistent Swedish committee, often swayed by geopolitical rather than literary criteria, had given her the prize because of what she was rather than what she wrote. But Morrison shrugs off these suspicions, which have accompanied every upward step of her career. “When I heard I’d won,” she says, “you heard no ‘Aw, shucks’ from me. The prize didn’t change my inner assessment of what I’m capable of doing, but I welcomed it as a public, representational affirmation of my work. I was surprised at how patriotic I felt, being the first native-born American winner since Steinbeck in 1962. [Subsequent American laureates–Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky–emigrated to the U.S.] I felt pride that a black and a woman had been recognized in such an international forum.”

The debate about where Morrison ranks among the other American laureates will probably simmer for years. Does she belong with Steinbeck and Pearl S. Buck, authors whose earnest social concerns and novels now strike most critics and readers as passe? Some reviewers have found Morrison’s novels overly deterministic, her characters pawns in the service of their creator’s designs. Essayist Stanley Crouch says Morrison is “immensely talented. I just think she needs a new subject matter, the world she lives in, not this world of endless black victims.” But for every pan, Morrison has received a surfeit of paeans: for her lyricism, for her ability to turn the mundane into the magical. In the Nobel sweepstakes at the moment, Morrison looks to be a lot closer to William Faulkner, whom many critics regard as this century’s greatest American novelist, than to Buck and Steinbeck.

“Come Prepared or Not at All” appears on page 13 of Morrison’s new novel, Paradise (Knopf; 318 pages; $25), her first since winning the prize. The curious and somehow ominous phrase that she stumbled across some six years ago, before her life grew exhaustingly complicated, has finally blossomed into a book published in a first printing of 400,000 copies. And Paradise was controversial even before it went on sale. Jump-the-gun reviews have ranged from the splenetic (“a clunky, leaden novel”–the New York Times) to the ecstatic (“the strangest and most original book that Morrison has written”–the New Yorker). Everyone who cares about contemporary fiction will doubtless be talking about Paradise, and not only because of the renown of its author. To read the novel is to be pulled into a passionate, contentious and sometimes violent world and to confront questions as old as human civilization itself.

One of the many pleasures of Paradise, for longtime Morrison readers, is watching the ways it picks up and elaborates on subjects and themes from the author’s earlier works. There are, for example, females rebelling against patriarchal mores, as in Sula (1974), and black characters judging one another on the relative darkness or lightness of their skin, as in Tar Baby (1981). Morrison conceived Paradise as the final installment of a trilogy that began with Beloved (1987). That haunting tale of a mother, an escaping slave, who loved her daughter so fiercely that she killed her rather than allowing her to be taken back into bondage by her pursuers won the Pulitzer Prize. It was followed in 1992 by Jazz, in which the love of a man for a younger woman turns violent in the Harlem of the 1920s. The form of love anatomized in Paradise is a hunger for security, the desire to create perfection in an imperfect world.

The novel opens starkly–“They shoot the white girl first”–and then coils back and forth through a century of imagined history to explain who “they” are and why, on a dewy Oklahoma morning in 1976, they felt compelled to storm a decaying mansion and wreak violence on the handful of women living within it.

Morrison traces the genesis of this brutal act back to the 1870s, when nine African-American patriarchs, ex-slaves in Mississippi and Louisiana, joined together, gathered their wives and children, picking up a few strays in the process, and headed west to settle in the Oklahoma Territory. Eventually, arduously, they reach a town called Fairly, where their spokesmen appeal to the local citizens, blacks like them except with lighter skin, for permission to settle there. The Fairly leaders say no (“Come Prepared or Not at All”). This rejection will reverberate through the next hundred years of the outcasts’ collective memory as the Disallowing. “Afterwards,” Morrison writes, “the people were no longer nine families and some more. They became a tight band of wayfarers bound by the enormity of what had happened to them. Their horror of whites was convulsive but abstract. They saved the clarity of their hatred for the men who had insulted them in ways too confounding for language: first by excluding them, then by offering them staples to exist in that very exclusion.”

The band of the Disallowed eventually establish Haven, where they install a communal oven in the center of the town and then live in willed isolation from the outside world. Haven thrives for decades until the male descendants of the founding fathers return from service in World War II and find that the place has atrophied in their absence, that residents are moving out, seeking work in cities, looking for a share in the postwar prosperity. So these young men decide to repeat the past. They dismantle the oven, load it on a truck and move it and their families farther west to start up, from scratch, another Oklahoma town, which they name Ruby to honor the woman in their clan who died after the journey. Ruby is 90 miles from anywhere else, which is just what the new patriarchs want, except for a strange old house 17 miles away known locally as the Convent.

This building has a tangled history, but by the late 1960s, it is occupied only by an elderly dying nun and Consolata, her devoted servant and helper of 30 years. And the Convent becomes, with Consolata’s diffident acquiescence, a refuge for broken young women, on the run from husbands or boyfriends, parents or the messes they have made of their lives elsewhere. If they show up and have nowhere else to go, Consolata lets them stay.

Paradise establishes these two locales–the place where men rule and the one where women try to escape that rule–in a manner far more complex, nuanced and ambiguous than any summary can reproduce. It is a mistake common to both Morrison’s admirers and critics to understand her fiction too quickly. The violent act that begins and ends Paradise–the assault of the men of Ruby on the women in the Convent–cannot be described simply as a feminist parable, as some early reviewers have already dubbed it.

Morrison has argued for years that stories and storytelling convey information, necessary information, available nowhere else. She made this case again in her Nobel Prize address: “The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience, it is not a substitute for it. It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie.” To read Morrison as an allegorist or a sloganeer is to overlook completely the power of her art.

That power is visible on nearly every page of Paradise. Morrison’s prose remains the marvel that it was in her earlier novels, a melange of high literary rhetoric and plain talk. She can turn pecan shelling into poetry: “the tick of nut meat tossed in the bowl, cooking utensils in eternal adjustment, insect whisper, the argue of long grass, the faraway cough of cornstalks.” She captures the stark geography surrounding Ruby: “This land is flat as a hoof, open as a baby’s mouth.” And she builds Ruby practically brick by brick: its streets (named after the four Gospels), the three churches (Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal) ministering to a population of 360.

These people, particularly the men, are fascinating mixtures of virtues and vices: proud, independent, argumentative, close-minded. The twins, Deacon and Steward Morgan, grandsons of one of Haven’s founding fathers, are angry at the way the town’s young people have begun to act up, loitering around the communal oven with radios blaring–it is the ’60s, remember–and questioning the authority of the elders. Something is polluting Ruby, the Morgans and others like them believe, threatening the one place in the world where they have ever felt safe.

How they come to pin the blame for this disruption on the strange women in the Convent is a tale of Faulknerian complexity and power. Morrison once wrote a Cornell master’s thesis on Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, and the Mississippian’s incantatory prose rhythms still crop up in her writing. Here is Deacon musing on the past as he drives around in Ruby: “He [Deacon’s grandfather] would have been embarrassed by grandsons who worked twelve hours five days a week instead of the eighteen-to-twenty-hour days Haven people once needed just to keep alive, and who could hunt quail for pleasure rather than the desperate need to meet a wife and eight children at table without shame.” Can this intense imaginative sympathy really come from an author who is merely intent on making a feminist argument?

Then there is the subject of race. It is not mentioned a great deal in Paradise, perhaps because nearly all the characters are black. It is almost impossible to identify the white woman whose shooting is announced in the novel’s opening sentence. As the women drift, singly, into the Convent, the reader–knowing what lies in store for the white one–must wonder: Is it Mavis? Grace? Seneca? Pallas?

“I did that on purpose,” Morrison says. “I wanted the readers to wonder about the race of those girls until those readers understood that their race didn’t matter. I want to dissuade people from reading literature in that way.” And she adds: “Race is the least reliable information you can have about someone. It’s real information, but it tells you next to nothing.”

This assertion may surprise some people, since it comes from the author who almost single-handedly gave African-American women their rightful place in American literature. Racial questions have figured prominently in many of Morrison’s critical essays. But there is really no contradiction between what she says now and what she has written in the past. She views her life and work as a struggle against the use of racial categories, or any categories, as a means of keeping groups of people powerless and excluded. She resents seeing her writing pigeonholed by her skin color. “I was reading some essay about the Black Family”–she makes quotation marks with her fingers–“and the writer went into a comparison between one of my novels and The Cosby Show.” She shakes her head and smiles. “That’s like comparing apples and Buicks.”

Looking back over her 66 years, Morrison says, “Being able to laugh got me through,” and she does so far more often in private conversations than her dignified and rather somber public image would suggest. She jokes about her childhood in Lorain, Ohio. “I was the one with the anonymous birth order. There was my older sister, firstborn; me, void; my younger brother, first son; and another son, the family baby. Feeling left out, and trying to attract attention, I became the noisiest of them all.”

She credits her parents with the drive and self-confidence that took her through college at Howard University, an M.A. from Cornell, a teaching post at Howard and editing jobs that eventually landed her in Manhattan. Jason Epstein, now a Random House vice president and executive editor, was Morrison’s boss in those days, and he has remained a friend ever since. “She was a wonderful colleague,” he says, “always bright and apt and funny. I used to love to go sit in her office, just for the pleasure of it; it was full of plants, I remember. It was clear that her heart and soul were in her own writing.” Morrison stopped working on other people’s manuscripts when she found she could support herself by producing hers.

“There were plenty of roadblocks along the way,” she recalls of her career and her life. “The world back then didn’t expect much from a little black girl, but my father and mother certainly did. She was still alive when I won the Nobel, although she died three months later. She was delighted but not surprised.”

And Morrison laughs at a subsequent event that has, in terms of mass recognition, affected her life more dramatically than did the Nobel Prize: the selection, in December 1996, of her 1977 novel Song of Solomon as the second offering of the Oprah Book Club. “I’d never heard of such a thing,” she says, “and when someone called, all excited, with the news, all I could think was, ‘Who’s going to buy a book because of Oprah?'” The answer came fairly quickly and astonishingly. “A million copies of that book sold,” she says, again shaking her head. “And sales of my other books in paperback jumped about 25%.” Morrison seldom watches television–“I think of it as one of those fake fireplaces, always moving and always looking just the same”–so she had no idea of Oprah Winfrey’s clout. She does now, and she has another reason to be grateful to the queen of daytime TV. Winfrey bought the screen rights to Morrison’s novel Beloved, and the film, directed by Jonathan Demme, will appear in the fall.

Morrison naturally welcomes the commercial windfalls such recognition brings, but she is not terribly comfortable with being recognized in that way. She faces her upcoming publicity tour for Paradise with a certain dread, although she feels she owes the effort to her publisher, which has a large investment in the novel. “I get cranky and depressed on the road,” she says. As a Nobel laureate, she has a little more cachet than struggling first novelists, so she has been able to set certain limits on how she is displayed. “I’ve refused to do the morning TV shows. I just can’t handle those two-to-five-minute snippets. I’m not good at it, and I sort of don’t think much of the people who are good at it.”

Even without the upcoming tour, Morrison’s life seems hectic. She rents an apartment near Princeton University in New Jersey, where since 1989 she has held a university chair in the humanities; another apartment in lower Manhattan; and a stone house in Rockland County, N.Y. Plus, she is having rebuilt the house she owned on the Hudson River just north of New York City, which burned to the ground on Christmas Day 1993. Three residences? Or four, counting the house in progress? “I was a child of the Depression,” she shrugs and laughs. “I have bad dreams about eviction.”

She has lived alone since her marriage broke up in 1964. “I considered marrying again, on several occasions,” she says. “But I decided against it for two reasons. I didn’t want to give up the delight of not having to answer to another person, and I was worried about how my two boys would react to a stepfather.” Those sons are in their 30s, one an architect and the other a painter and musician; one of them produced Morrison’s first grandchild, now 10.

Although her professional responsibilities–to Princeton, her publisher, her public–are heavy, Morrison insists that “my personal life is most unexciting, and I like it like that.” She sees a small group of friends occasionally and reads all the time. “Reading is splendid.” She also gardens at the house in the country, “pot gardening, now mostly flowers. There have been mornings when I’ve gone into my greenhouse at sunrise, and the next time I checked it was noon.”

Paradise? She laughs at the question. “It’s not my place to define paradise for anyone else. That, in one way, is what the new novel is saying. It’s not anyone’s place to do that. But I’ll confess my idea of what paradise would be for me. Nine days of seclusion, total seclusion. No obligations, no demands, nothing but doing anything I wanted, when I wanted.” She pauses, perhaps considering the duties she faces in the coming weeks. “I’ve had four or five days, but never nine. Not yet.” Heaven must wait.

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