Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Latest Toni Morrison novel will appeal to her fans
WITH its quiet title and its one-word dedication ("Slade," it says, as if beckoning the author's dead son), this little novel by American Toni Morrison is folded in mysterious possibilities.
The epigraph is also moving and strange, an unnamed speaker asking, "Whose house is this? ... Why does its lock fit my key?"
As the ominous first chapter opens with a surreptitious burial at night, all the signs point to something that just might be as brilliant as Morrison's 1988 tour de force, Beloved.
Are we in for another ghost story? Are we going to be shaken with the anguish of the slave ships that cross Beloved's seas?
But, by about the middle of the second chapter, an altogether different kind of question flashes across your mind: "What is this sh*t?" (as Greil Marcus so famously growled in his review of Bob Dylan's 1970 release Self-Portrait.)
What's with the clichéd representation of a traumatized Korean War vet, and has Mad Men's Don Draper somehow shaded into the tale here?
Even if Morrison has already retorted with the words, "Mad Men. Oh please."-- as she did in a recent interview with The Guardian -- there is also the problem of the half-baked depiction of the creepy gynecologist who experiments on the protagonist's sister.
A reader's experience of bafflement or disappointment is perhaps inevitable when his or her expectations for an author run so high.
For, as the first African-American woman to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, Morrison is as talented as they come.
Home is her 10th novel, and the fourth since she won the Nobel in 1993. At 81, and from her own home in upstate New York, she can look back on her career -- as a novelist, poet, and professor at Princeton -- with few regrets.
A Mercy (2008), her most recent novel before Home, hit new heights of skill, delivering an exquisite tale about an abandoned 17th-century plantation house.
Home doesn't return to this particular house, and neither does it generate the complex contemporary applications of A Mercy's 17th-century slave economy.
Home seems, rather, to be have been pulled from the back of a filing cabinet, an old manuscript dusted off, tweaked, and mailed off to her agent. Her main character's name, Frank Money, perhaps acknowledges something about its publication.
It's not a bad novel, though. In fact, it sometimes resembles a shard of glass with angles that gleam, depending on how you hold it up to the light. At others times, though, it just feels broken and incomplete.
Through Frank, Morrison turns to the 1950s, exploring the experience of segregation as a form of exile and disorientation.
The non-fictional horror story that is U.S. history for African-Americans is the carefully portrayed backdrop of the plot here. As Frank travels south from Chicago, he risks being killed for simply walking on the wrong side of the street.
Frank's quest is toward his sister Cee, who may be dead by the time he finds her. A lost soul, Cee makes the mistake of falling for the illusion that a beautiful house contains beautiful residents.
As in other Morrison novels, the characters are rarely still and their portraits unsentimental. She explores what it might have been like for an African-American to fight in Korea, what strange convergences of racial violence brought that about, and how it is that trees, countries, and people can be "hurt right down the middle" and still continue to stand.
It's a quick read, and its key themes return to what Morrison has always explored: that sanctuaries are provisional and communities hard-won. If you're a Morrison fan, these are good enough reasons for reading the novel.
Dana Medoro is a professor in the department of English, film and theatre at the University of Manitoba.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2012 J9
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