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Books

Morrison lite

October 26, 2003

BY MARY MITCHELL SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST

I always approach Toni Morrison's novels with both anticipation and dread. I devoured Sula, Tar Baby and Solomon's Song with the appetite of a person famished. The words of a black woman writer had suddenly freed me to revel in the rich tapestry of the black experience. In the early years I could not get enough of Morrison.

Later, her most celebrated novels were my least favorite. While I read her early work with lusty impatience, delving into her later novels meant parting layers of veils -- beautiful ones, but a chore to part.

Morrison was unapologetic about leaving so many of us in the dust. Reading, she once said, should never be easy. Honored by the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, she has reached near-cult status.

Still, I have longed for the Morrison who wrote The Bluest Eye (1969), her first novel. I still consider it her best. Written at a time when black women were discovering their own beauty, Morrison displayed the moral authority needed to address the myriad ways in which blacks expressed self-hatred. Love, Morrison's latest novel, reminds me of her earliest writing.

Let's start with size. At roughly 200 pages, it is the thinnest novel Morrison has written since The Bluest Eye. As in Beloved, Morrison again explores the influence of the dead upon the living. But here Morrison's use of the supernatural is less intimidating. This time the ghost is a man, Bill Cosey, the deceased wealthy owner of a resort on the sea where the black bourgeoisie can indulge in the trappings of privilege away from the prying eyes of the have-nots.

The novel is narrated by L, a wise former chef in the hotel. Four other women -- May, Cosey's dead son's wife; Christine, his granddaughter; Vida, a friend, and Heed, his wife -- were obsessed with Cosey during his life. Junior, a ward and stranger in their midst, fell under his spell long after he died. A cryptic message scribbled on the back of a menu, leaving his estate to "that sweet cosey child," locked Christine and Heed into a bitter dependency. Junior has her own tales of woe, but is ripe to be used by either woman to accomplish her goal of wrenching from Cosey in death what he could not give them in life.

"It seemed to her that each woman lived in a spotlight separated -- or connected -- by the darkness between them," Junior notes the first night she shows up at the house the two women shared. Love is dominated by women whose insides rattle. Junior's voracious appetite for food and sex speaks to that need to be filled up. Christine's search for a father's love leads her to look for it in the arms of a succession of sugar daddies, only to end up coveting the pureness of a childhood friend.

Heed is even worse off. She called her husband "Papa." Although a woman when Christine returned, "true to her whore's heart, sporting diamonds in their rightful owner's face" like a child, Heed was emboldened by her contempt.

"Once -- perhaps twice -- a year, they punched, grabbed hair, wrestled, bit, slapped. Never drawing blood, never apologizing, never premeditating, yet drawn annually to pant through an episode that was as much rite as fight. Finally, they stopped, moved into acid silence, and invented other ways to underscore bitterness. Along with age, recognition that neither one could leave played a part in their unnegotiated cease-fire."

L was the only person who could keep Heed and Christine from killing each other at Cosey's funeral. She alone can see how each woman was changed by this one man, but still remembers why the women kept this change a secret.

Love is difficult in the sense that a passage that may seem muddled will become perfectly clear upon reflection. It is Morrison's beautiful phrasing, sprinkled generously through the early chapters, that guides readers to the the novel's treasures. For instance, the significance of such passages as "Whatever was going on was a trap laid by a high-heeled snake" and "touched the corners of her lips with a hand small as a child's and crooked as a wing" won't become clear to you until long after you've read them.

Morrison strips bare the emotion of love, so romanticized by commercial writers. She uses her powerful narrative voice to span the space between the 1950s, the period she chooses to spin this tale, and the '90s, where love is often exploited as lust and sex:

"Still, straddling a chair or dancing half naked on TV, these nineties women are not all that different from the respectable women who live around here. This is coast country, humid and God-fearing, where female recklessness runs too deep for short shorts or thongs or cameras. But then or now, decent underwear or none, wild women never could hide their innocence -- a kind of pity-kitty hopefulness that their prince was on his way," L tells us.

As in her early work, Morrison has a subtle way of leading readers to frightening places. In less skilled hands, Love could have turned into a sordid sad tale of family secrets. Yet because of Morrison's skill, understanding can be wrung from a selfish act that poisons every life connected to it.

"I've come to believe that every family has a Dark and needs one. All over the world, traitors help progress. It's like being exposed to tuberculosis. After it feels the cemetery, it strengthens whoever survives; helps them know the difference between a strong mind and a healthy one; between the righteous and the right ... The problem for those left alive is what to do about revenge -- how to escape the sweetness of its rot," L explains.

As in Paradise, within the first few pages Morrison gives you the key you need to unlock the doors to her often complicated metaphor. "... When the need arose, I could make a point strong enough to stop a womb -- or a knife," L says. "Not anymore, because back in the seventies, when women began to straddle chairs and dance crotch out on television, when all the magazines started featuring behinds and inner thighs as though that's all there is to a woman, well, I shut up altogether. Before women agreed to spread in public, there used to be secrets -- some to hold, some to tell."

Morrison refuses to judge these tortured lives. We are free to see the nature of love through the eyes of women who took what they needed from a friend, a stranger, a benefactor, a lover, a husband, a guardian, a father and a phantom in their lives. In the end, Morrison reveals the secret of Celestial, the mysterious love that follows Cosey to his grave.

There is no need to wait until you are able to join a book club to read Love. Morrison has slowed down just enough to let more of us catch up. In doing so, she has delivered a brilliant novel that will give you a piercing look at love from every angle.

FICTION: Love by Toni Morrisson Knopf. $23.95.





 
 











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