Thursday, February 5, 2009

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

It took me almost the entire book to realize how good Beloved sounds when read aloud. It was only when Morrison basically said it straight out, that she was looking to create meaning on a deeper level than the flat of the page, that the words my eyes passed over were only half-activated in that state, that I saw how much I had missed. Morrison wrote:
For Sethe it was as though the Clearing had come to her with all its heat and simmering leaves, where the voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words. Building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound dep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash.
It wasn't the first time Morrison had tried to alert me of the importance of sound to this story. As simple a thing as the main character's name—"Sethe... Seth-thuh," as she helpfully prompts a delightfully nitwitted whitegirl in search of Boston velvet—should have been enough. You can't just see your way into a character whose name could sound a couple of ways.

Then there are the oddly ungrammatical sentences that crop up throughout the book, like "The pair and a half of skates were lying by the front door, the stockings hung on a nail behind the cooking stove to dry had not." The failed parallelism and ellipticality of the second clause seems like it could be "fixed" with a slight restructuring. Yet the simplest fix would just be reading it aloud: the grammar mends itself in the voice. And this happens a number of times in the book: Morrison is saying, "You can't just read it; it must be spoken to be understood."

In an incredible stretch of pages, Stamp Paid is repelled from 124 Bluestone when he hears, "mixed in with the voices surrounding the house, recognizable but undecipherable to Stamp Paid, were the thoughts of the women of 124, unspeakable thoughts, unspoken." The four chapters that follow are precisely those "unspeakable thoughts, unspoken," chapters which greatly resemble many of the monologue-like sections of A Mercy.

The politics of the voice—the ability and even the motivation to speak—are of paramount importance in the history of slavery, as it was almost the sole vector of resistance and the sole vehicle of memory. Morrison's use of voice breaks into the story, becomes the story at times, and has the power in almost every moment to reshape the experience one has of the book itself.

She does something similar with color, I think: she takes the color line and shatters it through the prism of her story so that color does so much more than divide. I would like to excerpt the passage about Baby Suggs's dying meditation on color, but I think the following is a better illustration of what I mean. Though the colors are mostly implicit, they are richly so:
Alone, the last man with the buffalo hair among the Cherokee, Paul D finally woke up and, admitting his ignorance, asked how he might get North. Free North. Magical North. Welcoming, benevolent North. The Cherokee smiled and looked around. The flood rains of a month ago had turned everything to steam and blossoms.

"That way," he said, pointing. "Follow the tree flowers," he said. Only the tree flowers. As they go, you go. You will be where you want to be when they are gone."

So he raced from dogwood to blossoming peach. When they thinned out he headed for the cherry blossoms, then magnolia, chinabery, pecan, walnut and prickly pear. At last he reached a field of apple trees whose flowers were just becoming tiny knots of fruit. Spring sauntered north, but he had to run like hell to keep it as his traveling companion. From February to July he was on the lookout for blossoms. When he lost them, and found himself without so much as a petal to guide him, he paused, climbed a tree on a hillock and scanned the horizon for a flash of pink or white in the leaf world that surrounded him. He did not touch them or stop to smell. He merely followed in their wake, a dark ragged figure guided by the blossoming plums.

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