Toni Morrison's New Novel Is Best Read With Her Backlist In Mind
When we talk about Toni Morrison, we are also talking about what it means to thrive in the midst of well-manicured and eloquent hostility. With God Help The Child, Morrison — America's only living Nobel Prize-winning novelist — has offered us not only her 11th novel, but an opportunity to meditate on the tension between the idea of the artist and the reality of the artist herself. Her name becomes shorthand for a republic of women and black artists with "no home in this place" to borrow a phrase from Morrison's Nobel lecture, people who create, reclaim and celebrate art that is intent on offering something of use back to the people whom it illuminates. Both because of her tremendous success and the publishing industry's tendency to proudly point to individual writers of color as proof of diversity rather than actually enacting diversity of substance in their book lists and editorial staffs, Morrison remains American literature's singular and singled out mother.
For her readers, especially the most faithful acolytes among them, an attempt to see the artist herself is likely a fool's errand. The idea of Toni Morrison has been too important to too many of us for too long. Even when she is sitting right in front of us, we can't see her in the midst of her own blazing light. This phenomenon makes reading God Help The Child joyfully rigorous.
When a black mother named Sweetness steps forward to speak first in the novel's opening pages, you'd be forgiven for hearing a kind of doublespeak almost immediately. "It's not my fault. So you can't blame me. I didn't do it and have no idea how it happened." Sweetness tries to justify why, upon discovering her newborn daughter had a blue-black complexion in contrast to her own lighter skin tone, she decided to raise her daughter with a brutal coldness. (She did consider, briefly, smothering the child but quickly set that thought aside, she assures us.) "Her color is a cross she will always carry," says the mother who we learn insisted on her daughter calling her "Sweetness" instead of "Mama."
Sweetness' gentle brutality forces the young Bride to falsely accuse an innocent woman of child molestation. (Pedophiles and the bodies of broken children dot the landscape of God Help The Child. Mangled mother love is just the first of the many perils Morrison's characters will encounter.) Bride's action — intended to garner even just a brief moment of affection from her mother — shadows herself and the reader. What are we willing to do for the love we cannot live without?
It's a crucial question conveyed in an at-times withholding tale. The music of Morrison's writing has been turned down so low, one is tempted to put their ear against the novel's pages. After Bride grows up into a gorgeous and successful cosmetics executive, living in California, the book reads like a modern-day fable about a woman who thinks she has survived her past simply because of the gift of time's passage and her life's glamorous new trappings. The contemporary setting of God Help The Child seems to cut off opportunities for the author's lauded lyricism. Although much of it takes place in California, the description of the various settings was so sparse, I had to remind myself it wasn't set in Brooklyn. In fact, I'm still not sure why the book needed to be set in California as the setting doesn't seem to be in conversation with the internal lives of the characters as is the case in Morrison novels like Sula or Song of Solomon. In short, this book stands on its own, but can only stand with confidence when it has the idea of Toni Morrison as its spine.
For not only is God Help The Child about its own characters, it is about the conversation Morrison has been having with her readers for decades. In A Mercy, set in the late 1600s, a slave begs a traveling Anglo-Dutch trader to take her daughter with him, hoping that the child will be relatively safer under his ownership. Beloved, set almost two centuries later, examines the exacting and haunting cost of an escaped slave, Sethe, slitting her young daughter's throat rather than letting her child be captured by slave hunters. And, of course, the entire reading of God Help The Child is colored by its relationship to Morrison's debut novel The Bluest Eye. In that book, Pecola, a black and unloved child who prays for blue eyes, is raped and impregnated by her father while her mother is away cleaning a white family's home.
With these daughters in mind, Bride exists as a kind of avatar: What would it look like for any of these black girls to have survived their childhoods? Who would they become if given a chance and just how far would they be forced to drag the body of their pasts into their hard-won futures? Later in God Help The Child, Bride is spurred by an unexpectedly painful breakup to journey into the long ignored reaches of herself. And she better do it in a hurry. In the novel's only shade of magical realism, the character discovers that her body is regressing back to its girl-aged form. The lobes of her pierced ears close, her breasts shrink and flatten. The woman she has worked so hard to fashion is literally disappearing.
This is where the idea of Toni Morrison begins to blaze again. Sweetness is yet another one of Morrison's impossible mothers, women who take unthinkable actions in the midst of brutal circumstances. Though God Help The Child is set in the present day (a first for Morrison), the mother-daughter relationship at the novel's center takes on a deeper resonance when the reader considers the author's collective body of work. By itself, God Help The Child is simply a good book. In the company of its sister novels though, it transcends the limits of its own pages and becomes another act in a painfully exquisite drama that spans centuries.
By the end of the novel, I began to wonder if Morrison herself — America's storyteller, literature's matriarch — is a kind of impossible mother herself. Have we hungered for her for too long? Have we asked her to save us from ourselves one time too many? The idea of Toni Morrison will survive Morrison herself. And with both gratitude and a bit of dread, God Help The Child reads like Morrison is weaning us.
Saeed Jones is the literary editor for BuzzFeed. His most recent book of poetry is Prelude to Bruise.
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