BELOVED BY TONI MORRISON

You know, sometimes I just don’t get other readers. I can’t relate to their reactions, their expectations, their way of looking at things. Take Beloved, a book that I have only ever part read, having given up about a third of the way into it. Reaction to the book seems to be about evenly split between those who hate it and those who love it. Which is fine, of course. Yet the haters appear to base their antipathy on the subject matter; they, according to the reviews I’ve read, have a problem with someone writing about slavery; they compose their reviews metaphorically throwing their hands around in wild fashion as if to keep this objectionable topic away. It’s as though Morrison was trying to convert them to Catholicism or something. I can’t get my head around it at all. Their argument, as far as I can gather, is that slavery was, y’know, a long time ago and we’re now entirely inclusive and lovely towards all people and so writing about it is tantamount to trying to make us [by which I mean white people] feel guilty for something that 1. we didn’t ourselves do and 2. we can’t control i.e. the colour of our skin. Honestly, go look on Goodreads; I’m not making this shit up.

What do you say to ignorant crap like that? Part of me would prefer to say nothing because I find it exhausting arguing against such obviously flawed reasoning. But if I was forced to respond I might well state, first of all, that, uh, racism does actually still exist. And so the subject is, er, not entirely irrelevant. Secondly, even if it didn’t exist in our society, even if we were all living in multi-cultural hippy communes, what exactly would be wrong with someone writing about slavery and persecution? I might be wrong of course [I’m not], but I’m pretty sure Morrison didn’t put the necessary effort and time into writing a book just to make some twat in Milton Keynes feel guilty. If you ask me, I’d guess that it may be that, as a black woman, as a human being, she would be interested in exploring and understanding such a pivotal and lamentable part of [her/our] history.

For me, the point of writing a book like Beloved is to elevate a terrible part of history beyond mere statistics. Like with the holocaust, it’s easy sometimes to get lost in numbers, to forget that individual people were affected or perished. Beloved personalises slavery, which makes it easier for people-in-general to identify with the subject. I would say that is very important. As far as I’m concerned, we should not be allowed to forget, to push these things under the carpet. You cannot live in a vacuum, where history is meaningless except for passing exams and making a HBO mini-series. This stuff is part of who you are and continues to play a role in how the world, your world, works. And, yeah, I know what people say, which is that there are plenty of tragedies not given the same status, or attention; these people ask, why aren’t we talking about what happened in Bosnia, Serbia, Nigeria, etc? My response: stop whinging and write a book about those places/conflicts/tragedies, then.

However, I did, of course, quit Beloved without finishing it, although my doing so, my quitting, obviously had nothing to do with white guilt; my issues with the novel aren’t political ones, but, rather, they are bookish ones. I didn’t feel as though Toni Morrison was preaching at me, but I did feel as though the book was too heavy-handed and overwrought, and even cringingly trite and saccharine. In fact, the thing struck me as something like what Faulkner might have produced had you plied him full of E and asked him to write a chick-lit novel. And, well, that ain’t good, yo.

Just consider this line:

“Jump, if you want to, ‘cause I’ll catch you, girl. I’ll catch you ‘fore you fall.”

And this:

“He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. ‘You your best thing, Sethe. You are.’ His holding fingers are holding hers.”

The most polite thing I can say about those two quotes [and I’m really trying to be polite] is that neither strike me as good writing.

What about this:

“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved.”

I mean….dear God. And the thing is, I totally agree with the sentiment of almost everything in the above passage; it’s the presentation of that sentiment that bothers me.

Every sentence in Beloved aches [or creaks] with emotion, with meaning and significance; and, for me, the impact of the story, and the full horror of the subject that Morrison was dealing with, was compromised by that. Cards on the table, I found the book entirely ridiculous. There’s a weird tension between the florid style, the sentimentality, and the subject matter and some of the content; it is a book that screams excess; everything is taken just a bit too far; Morrison displays a distinct inability to rein in it, and a lack of subtlety and control. So, one minute we’re getting told about how breast milk was forcibly harvested from Sethe, the next she and Paul D are sharing a tender moment, as he feels up the scars on her back and rambles on poetically-symbolically about a tree.Throughout my reading, I wanted on almost every page to tell her: tone it down, and let the story breathe a bit; I wanted to chide her: you’re trying too hard. I felt as though some of her choices weren’t made in order to serve the story, but because she was trying to impress. Ironically, for someone who, I think I am correct in saying, teaches or taught English literature or creative writing, I would say that she needed advice and guidance herself. Someone needed to look at the manuscript and take a red pen to it, with little notes in the margin saying is this necessary? 

Probably the most glaring misstep in the novel occurs long after I gave up on it. Struggling badly to overcome my reservations about the quality of what I was reading, I had a look at some online reviews. It was then that I came across the opinions outlined in my initial paragraphs, but it was also then that I found out that the baby – the ghost baby, the slaughtered baby – at some point in the novel, apparently, is heard in the text; by which I mean that we have access to its thoughts or words. And, I, ah, I dunno about you, but that just seems ludicrous to me; it’s almost akin to gross incompetence or mishandling of your material. Why on earth would you do that? The fate of that child speaks loudly enough, all Toni Morrison is doing by giving it a voice [a stream of consciousness voice, I believe] is cranking up the melodrama to 1000. And I had a thought upon that discovery, a thought that ran: I’m not reading all this to get there.

Advertisements

2 comments

  1. Honestly, I appreciated Beloved a lot. In my opinion, it is a masterpiece… though difficult and unfriendly. It is not the way of writing I love most, but I recognise it is a masterpiece.

    I think you read only the first part, which is the most difficult. Sometimes I think Toni Morrison did it purposefully, like Nabokov. I observed I had to surpass the first 50 pages to really get Beloved’s beauty. My father loves Toni Morrison and knows her entire work quite well. He told me: “Read it until page 5o before quitting”. I started reading and was quite puzzled. However, I did it and in the second half of the book, everything changed and I really began loving it. Then I gave this piece of advice to a friend who wanted to read it and she told me: “You were right, it was necessary to go beyond the beginning. Thanks for telling me”.

    1. Thanks for your comment.That you enjoyed the book is great, and I wouldn’t, and couldn’t, argue against that. However, my objections aren’t at all based on difficulty, or unfriendliness. I didn’t find the book hard, merely overwrought and badly written. I think Morrison can write well, but over-stretches herself and makes too many poor decisions. It’s about personal preference, I guess. I’ve read one other novel of hers [which i finished], and while I felt that one was less cringingly melodramatic, i was still struck by how many bafflingly bad choices she made; to my mind, her work suffers from a chronic lack of subtlety.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s