Often referred to as America’s unofficial official national novelist, Toni Morrison carries in her prose not just the weight of the story she is telling, but the weight of the nation she represents. More than any other American novelist Morrison stands for something profoundly, shamefully imbedded in the psyche of the nation.
As America took its first steps emerging from the shadows of its segregated past, Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). A powerful debut, it explored themes of guilt, incestuous rape, and self-hatred in the black community. Her novels throughout the seventies continued to find interesting, moving ways to get under the skin of the obvious heartstrings connected to the myriad injustices perpetrated upon Black America. By the time she released her masterpiece in 1987, Beloved, she was already a totemic figure of a social movement that traced its roots to Frederick Douglass and reached an apotheosis with Barak Obama. The irony is that as Morrison has always stood for the history of black America as witness to something that, in the deepest and darkest sense, she has not witnessed (unlike, say, Primo Levi or Imre Kertesz writing about Auschwitz). Morrison is writing once removed from the plight of her people, an observer, whereas as sometimes she is regarded as something more. In her craft lies genius. But Morrison is a writer of dramatic fiction, and on this basis her work must ultimately be judged. And to that effect Home is curiously unsatisfactory.
In this novel we are in the troubled company of Frank Money, 24-year-old Korean war veteran, escaped from an insane asylum and en route to his erstwhile lover Lily, in the hope-less Georgia town of Lotus. We see injustices, cruelty, prejudice, all delivered through the uncompromising, unassaying eye of histories ‘now’ in which Morrison’s prose works. Her genius lies primarily in her ability to bring the immediacy of history to a modern audience. And so our horror is purely human rather than moral in the societal sense. It is a remarkable trick.
But that also means that Morrison’s work is of a type, and with Home, her tenth novel, she is beginning to look as if she is addressing the same theme in the same way. In Home, for instance, for all the progress of Frank, the novel never feels like it is looking forward. And to this effect, ironically, it is quite easy to envisage Frederick Douglass as a character in a Toni Morrison novel, but not the current president.
Morrison has written only one great book since her Nobel Prize and that was her last, A Mercy (2008), which reached back as far as she has yet gone in the nation’s historical path. For Home, Morrison goes back only as far as the Korean war, but we are in familiar territory thematically. The issue here is that the drama of the book is hard-hitting. Frank sees the debris of his disemboweled friends in his dreams. Cee, his sister, finds her acceptance to the home of Dr and Mrs Scott as a briefly life-affirming job opportunity. She sleeps on a comfortable mattress in the basement and seemingly has all the fried chicken she can eat, whilst marveling at the tantalisingly large library in the house:
‘How small, how useless was her schooling, she thought, and promised herself she would find time to read about and understand “eugenics”’
It is a heart-stopping moment worthy of any great book, the tragedy flung upon the reader made all the more rich for its concealment from the character. Morrison makes us complicit in this darkest of jokes. It is Morrison at her finest, and it is fiction at its best, using untruths to shine light upon truths.
But, for such a slight book, this moment stands out as achieving what Morrison is capable of achieving. And so when Frank trudges from grubby injustice to grubby injustice the scenes feel decidedly underdone. The story is told through clipped, Old Testament prose that holds tightly to the lowly parade of central characters and it is worth noting that Morrison has often been criticised for the cold symbolism of her characters, their lack of depth. But she is sometimes equally presenting a people, working in allegory, which, although a dangerous game for a novelist, can obviously have a profound result.
Morrison, unlikely to be resting on her laurels, seems intent on her duty as beacon for a story which must continue to be told over and over again. Whether she will be tempted at some point to tell a story sprinkled with the light of Obama, or at least touch that universe, will have to be seen. She did, after all, read at his inauguration, the standard-bearer of Black America’s past paying tribute to the standard-bearer of all America’s future. But for now Morrison will continue in her ‘on-going noble fictional project’, as Updike put it, and hopefully produce the occasional major work, (such as she did with A Mercy). But Home is more a fable, albeit a fable that lingers in the air just as the vapours of America’s history lingers.