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"I'm strong. Alone, yes, but top notch and indestructible, like the city in 1926 when all the wars are over..."
on 21 April 2008
Set primarily in Harlem in 1926, when jazz was bursting forth from the traditions of gospel and blues, this 1992 novel is one of Morrison's most experimental and least accessible. Written from multiple points of view, it uses the patterns of jazz itself for its structure. A series of overarching themes connects the work, but these are seen in individual characterizations and episodes which flash backward and forward, twisting and turning as they connect, misconnect, change, and ultimately create a unique world larger than the sum of its individual parts.
Focusing primarily on middle-aged Violet Trace, her fifty-year-old husband Joseph, and Dorcas Manfred, his teenage lover, whom he believes shares his passion, Morrison explores issues of love and fear, sex and obsession, violence and passivity, and strength and dependence, in addition to her big issues of color and gender. At the outset of the novel, Joseph has murdered Dorcas, fearing that his love for her will never be as great as it is at the moment just before her death. His wife Violet, distraught, has been forcibly removed from Dorcas's wake, and though she believes herself to be strong and indestructible, she shows her own vulnerability, sometimes seeing "that other Violet" who inhabits her soul.
Gradually, the individual stories of Violet, Joe, their families, and Dorcas and her family, some members of whom go back even into the 1800s, flesh out the characterizations upon which this novel depends. For much of the novel, however, the reader must be patient, not sure exactly how all these characters are connected to each other, like the most experimental improvisations in jazz. Gradually, they do connect, and gradually the theme of redemption emerges triumphant.
Brilliant in its construction and thematic development, the novel requires the reader to make many connections which other authors (and Morrison in her other novels) make or suggest as a matter of course. Her complex, spiraling structure (which Faulkner also employs) in Beloved, Song of Solomon, and even an early novel like Sula, for example, seems more effective in these, perhaps because these novels have smaller casts of characters, and the importance of particular episodes and the relationships of many characters are clearer. For me, this was a novel to appreciate, rather than to love. n Mary Whipple