Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Review: Jazz – Toni Morrison

Another day, another book review:

Review: Jazz – Toni Morrison

Scout around the various posts on this blog and you’ll easily notice that I love both the music of jazz and literature that alludes to Dante’s Divine Comedy. It was therefore inevitable that I would turn my attention to Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel, Jazz, sooner or later.

Jazz is the middle book in a trilogy of Morrison novels, Jazz equating to Dante’s Purgatory. I have yet to read Beloved or Paradise, which mirror Dante’s Inferno and Paradise respectively, but like a jazz soloist, I will circle back to the theme at some point in the future.

The novel largely takes place in Harlem in the 1920s. It tells the story of the murder of eighteen year old Dorcas Manfred by her married lover Joe Trace. The entire book plays out like an improvised jazz performance, with each of the main characters telling their version of events like musicians playing solos against the beat of the whole band. The book’s narrator, either Morrison herself or some unnamed inhabitant of Harlem, serves as band leader, queuing in each performer to take their turn.

Thus do we hear the story told from the perspective of Dorcas’s Aunt Alice, Joe’s wife Violet and Malvonne, the woman from whom Joe rents a room where he can bring his young lover. Joe also tells his story, as well as Dorcas’s friend, Felice. Even Dorcas herself. Jazz takes place in the roaring 20s, youthful adolescence for the music from which it takes its name, yet its style anticipates the growing maturity of jazz in the 1940s, the narrative spinning backwards to the nineteenth century ancestors of its main characters like a Charlie Parker solo veering wildly away from the main melody of a well-trodden jazz standard.

As Harlem is Purgatory here, so it’s characters are stuck there. Stuck in the lives that they had before the incident around which the novel rotates. Joe shoots Dorcas dead, but doesn’t go to jail. The novel opens with Violet gate crashing the dead girl’s funeral to stab at her corpse in its casket, thrown out on to the snow filled streets (an allusion to the final frozen circle of the Inferno) and releasing all of her caged birds back into the wild in grief, anger and despair. She remains with Joe, the man she had fled with from the southern states of America. The north at first seems to offer them fresh hope, as it did for so many of the descendants of former slaves at that time. Yet in the final analysis, the north is just one more level up the island of Purgatory, away from deficient love and towards the excessive love that ends in Dorcas’s murder. Violet brings new birds into the apartment to make the Dantean circle complete. The couple grow old together in stagnation.

As I say, I haven’t read the books which precede and follow Jazz, but the themes of Purgatory, Limbo even, are clearly visible. My favourite passage from the book appears near the end, spoken by Morrison’s anonymous narrator:

I started out believing that life was made just so the world would have some way to think about itself, but that it had gone awry with humans because flesh, pinioned by misery, hangs on to it with pleasure. Hangs on to wells and a boy’s golden hair; would just as soon inhale sweet fire caused by a burning girl as hold a maybe-yes maybe-no hand. I don’t believe that anymore. Something is missing there. Something rogue. Something else you have to figure in before you can figure it out.

Indecision and uncertainty are as much purgatory as anything else and it is probably appropriate to start in the middle of the trilogy. Is that ‘something rogue’ found in Paradise? Is the initial belief in life being created as a way for the world to think about itself begun with Beloved? Do you in reading this already know the answers to these questions? I want to read Jazz again. I need to read Jazz again, but only when bookended by the books which surround it. Like the music, it’s simple and yet complicated, flowing from simple lines that twist and wrap themselves around each other. It is at times repetitious in the story it tells, yet each soloist interprets the melody in a slightly different way, emphasising and dampening notes from their own perspective. Riffing around some, avoiding others altogether.

The year after Jazz was released, Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I tend to place very little stock in awards ceremonies. Awards are all about opinion, perspective and, certainly with the Nobel prizes, politics. Yet if anyone has to win a Nobel Prize, I’m glad it was Toni Morrison. I love reading and it always nice to veer away from the same old authors and reach out to discover somebody new or unfamiliar. As with jazz, melody is fine but it’s good to improvise once in a while.

I read far too many books written by white men, who sadly still dominate just about every genre, fiction and non-fiction combined, as they have done since the age of Greek tragedy. The first step is admitting you have a problem and I’m slowly starting to correct for this myopia. Running around the same old circles is stagnation and stagnation is purgatory. Diversity though, now that really would be paradise.

Get it done.

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