January 11, 1998 in Features

Toni Morrison’s ‘Paradise’ Tests Readers’ Imagination

David Streitfeld The Washington Post
 

So, Toni Morrison.

You’re the first writer in English since Hemingway to win the Nobel Prize and yet be firmly anchored in mass culture - to have your work stacked up in warehouse discount clubs and New Jersey Turnpike rest stops.

At 66, you’re at the peak of your powers. Your best-known novel, “Beloved,” will be released as a big-budget movie this fall, undoubtedly sparking a reexamination of slavery that will make the noise over “Amistad” seem muted.

You receive more requests to lecture, to read, to be interviewed, to participate on panels and attend conferences, to receive honorary degrees and serve on government commissions, than could be dealt with by a whole shelf of writers.

No other contemporary writer has your formidable presence, your moral authority.

But are you happy?

Morrison laughs a bit and sighs at the same time.

“That’s really irrelevant,” she says, picking at a croissant in her office at the university here. “What is all this running around after happiness? It’s very American, and very boring. Why don’t we just do something constructive, something creative, and then if that makes us happy, fine. If it doesn’t, at least we still have tilled the garden, baked the bread, took care of somebody who couldn’t take care of themselves, written the book …”

Written the book, yes. Morrison’s seventh novel, her first since the Nobel, went on sale last week. This is the novel as cultural event: Newsweek rushing out its review so it can beat Time, which is talking cover. “60 Minutes” is doing a segment; other television shows are lining up. The publisher expects to sell hundreds of thousands of copies in the next few weeks - close to unprecedented for such an uncompromisingly literary work.

The critics will decide if “Paradise” is Morrison’s best book, but it’s a safe bet none will call it her simplest. The tale reaches back a century and roams over the country but mostly takes place in a small Oklahoma town in 1976. It would be tempting to say this is a major novelist’s take on what is frequently billed as the major issue confronting America today. Except for one thing: The whole point of the novel is to ignore race.

“They shoot the white girl first.” That’s the blunt first sentence of “Paradise,” but a chasm separates these six words from the rest of the novel, which never mentions race so directly again.

“They” are the men from the isolated hamlet of Ruby, convinced that a handful of free-spirited women living in a former convent are the source of all their troubles. The proud history of Ruby is given, as is the background of each of the women - a mother who accidentally let her children suffocate in a car; a confused teenager. At the end, the story circles back to the rampaging men. Only a very clever reader will figure out which of the women is the white girl. The others are black.

Morrison explains what she is up to: “The tradition in writing is that if you don’t mention a character’s race, he’s white. Any deviation from that, you have to say. What I wanted to do was not erase race, but force readers either to care about it or see if it disturbs them that they don’t know. Does it interfere with the story? Does it make you uncomfortable? Or do I succeed in making the characters so clear, their interior lives so distinctive, that you realize (a) it doesn’t matter, and (b), more important, that when you know their race, it’s the least amount of information to know about a person.”

It’s possible to read “Paradise” as exploring several sharp conflicts: the religious town vs. the “pagan” convent, those who worship money vs. those who don’t, the Ruby men vs. the convent women.

Morrison insists: “I don’t have an agenda. All I have are questions. Everything is very complicated. Yes, it could be that I could be understood to be saying that patriarchy is bad and matriarchy is good. In fact, I don’t believe either of those things. I don’t deal in these binaries.”

Which leads to her biggest worry about the book’s reception.

Ruby is an all-black community, a town that purposefully and successfully isolated itself from the world. It’s the perceived threat to this security, the attempt to make sure “nothing inside or out rots the one all-black town worth the pain,” that leads the men to attack the women.

“I’m fearful they’ll talk about it as a book about racist black people,” says Morrison. “You think they’ll do that to me?”

She chuckles.

Take poverty, music, brave women, deep roots in the Midwest, the changes wrought by the ‘60s - these are a few of the elements that formed the novelist and make up “Paradise.” In a very loose sense, it is the finale of a trilogy.

Fifteen years ago, Morrison planned a single novel about the nature of “the beloved.” This, she says, is the corner of our soul “that is reliable, that never betrays us, that is cherished by us, that we tend to cover up and hide and make into a personality.”

The first part of the novel was going to be about women loving children as an extension of themselves, and what would happen if the feeling was heightened because the children were owned by another. That eventually became a whole novel, “Beloved,” the story of a runaway slave who kills her infant daughter so she, too, won’t be a slave.

The second part became the novel “Jazz,” set in the Harlem Renaissance. It’s about a married man who falls for an 18-year-old girl “with one of those deep down, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going.”

The third part is the one published this month. Her initial notion of it was vague, but it was going to be about religion and abortion - not the issues but the experiences. The title came when she realized it was about two perfectly reasonable communities, each of which is convinced it understands the world and its place in it, and each is really a kind of a paradise.

The women who end up in the convent in “Paradise” are fleeing troubled, poor backgrounds. They’re women, as Morrison writes, “who chose themselves for company.” But the men of Ruby understand that the American dream is secured with land, with wealth. They see the women as freeloading. Says Morrison: “They begin to do what men frequently do when they want to manage and govern women. They focus on their babies - whether they’re having them or not having them. Reproductive organs become the focus.”

All this can make the novel sound schematic, or reductive, or a simple allegory, or no fun at all. The fact that none of this is true is due to Morrison’s art.

Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to be controversial.

“It’s a serious issue among black writers and black artists whether narratives should be romanticized or have the characters presented with ‘best foot forward.’ It’s not a trivial argument, but I happen to believe that if you reveal the complicated lives of black people in all their intricacies, their layered lives, that is much more powerful and regenerative as art than reducing or limiting African American characters to caricatures.”

The problem with the men of Ruby isn’t that they’re black, or even that they’re men. It’s that they’ve given up their vision of a better world.

In one passage, the father of one of the women thinks about his wife: “He had been warned about the consequences of marrying outside his own people, and every warning had come true: Dee Dee was irresponsible, amoral; a slut if truth be told.”

His own people? If Morrison made clear that Dee Dee was black, readers would judge it one way. But maybe by “his own people” the husband means he wasn’t supposed to marry someone from outside the South, or who was not middle-class, or who was of a different religion.

“I had to be careful in carving that sentence, so it both acknowledges the fact that he felt he had married someone alien to him, but at the same time that alienness was not necessarily race,” the writer says. “They could both be black, or both be white. I was making it deliberately fuzzy, so that the reader has to give up and do the thing we all say we do, or say we want to do, which is not to judge people on their race.”

Is language up to the task of building paradise? It’s a notion debated by the novel. Words can inflame as easily as soothe, threaten as well as cajole.

“I am suggesting that we are the only humans there are. There may be some elsewhere” - she laughs - “but as far as we know, this is it. We are the only ones who can imagine paradise, so let’s start imagining it properly, so that it isn’t about my way, my land, my borders, my values, and keeping out you and you and you. We’re the only ones who can do that. So - think it up.”

These days, talk too earnestly of creating the kingdom of Heaven here on Earth and people will think you daft.

Morrison is calm, regal, perfectly assured.

“Yes,” she says patiently. “The chances of paradise are small. So what?”


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