Thursday, September 07, 2006

Review: Toni Morrison's Beloved

Earlier this summer, The New York Times asked a panel of 125 literary luminaries to name the most important American novel published in the last 25 years, and the winner was Toni Morrison, for Beloved. Back in July I asked you folks to tell me why this book is so important, and at last, I have some answers.

First up, our own dear Flicka Spumoni. Without further ado:

By the second page of Beloved, Toni Morrison earned my respect as a story teller with this sentence: "Sky provided the only drama, and counting on a Cincinnati horizon for life’s principal joy was reckless indeed."

This sentence is so good because it speaks volumes about who Baby Suggs is, by describing the state of her soul, not her outward appearance. Baby Suggs is a woman so completely despairing of life that the only thing she finds safe to take pleasure in any more is color, and yet she is not so beaten down that she would recklessly rely on the horizon for her principal joy in life. Immediately, the reader’s imagination runs to the farthest edge of ruin and imagines Baby there, teetering, tethered to life by a strand of color. An average writer would waste three pages describing her physical appearance, or surroundings or the state of her clothes. Only the most skillful author possess the acumen to isolate the very most pertinent and revealing details to a story and focus on them as adroitly as Toni Morrison does in Beloved. She is a rare talent.

But I knew this author had heft with the first two sentences: "124 was spiteful. Full of baby’s venom."

These are so good for too many reasons to list, but it is brilliant enough that the entire story - and more than that, why this story is important not only to the characters within but to the reader far removed from those characters - is contained in the answers to the questions those sentences beg.

What or who is 124? Why is it spiteful? Baby’s venom? What’s that? Why is 124 full with it?

To explain the answers, one must tell the story. And from that vantage, Beloved takes shape.

Toni Morrison is also an expert at writing to the gut; the very best type of writing, in my opinion. Most writers make the mistake of appealing to the intellect, and while that is great for non-fiction, it’s found lacking in a story. Consider this example, one of hundreds: "Rainwater held on to pine needles for dear life and Beloved could not take her eyes off Sethe."

For brevity’s sake I will only assert that this sentence is felt in my bones as desperation and it’s exactly how to go about telling anything worth telling.

But the story…. Be forewarned, the story is one hard, sharp stone to bleed on, a detestable little thing. It’s about what happens when people who are abused worse than death find freedom, only to have it snatched away again. According to Beloved, they are pushed to the point of infanticide. And, that’s the ugly business of the book, sawing off a baby’s head in order to keep it from slavery. This is not a safe story. It smashes you to pieces. But, in the unflinching dedication to the vision, to the raw truth of the story no matter how ugly, to the unrelenting examination of the hard facts, Beloved is one, white-hot flash of brilliance.

Flicka Spumoni