Toni Morrison, Beloved, Knopf, 1987.
My blog doesn’t have many readers. That’s fine—I don’t advertise it. But for this post one of those readers is going to be my best friend. That’s awkward, because I didn’t really like her favorite book. Sorry, dearo.
It’s not to say I thought it was objectively bad. There is a lot of merit in it. I’m also not going to cop out and say it simply “didn’t connect with me.” There were several things about it I thought actively hindered any connecting. My complaints aren’t limited to Toni Morrison. I feel this way about a chunk of so-called “literary fiction.”
The first time I read Morrison was in high school. I read A Mercy, which I detested. I disliked it for two reasons. The first was definitely racism. I don’t mind admitting that. I suffered from a common disease among intellectual white teenagers: you wrap up much of your growing intellectual in a narrow series of “classics,” which means you get annoyed when anyone seems to intrude on your precious group of DWMs.
The second reason I didn’t like it had to do with my older brother, which made that same feeling more personal. My brother became ultra-woke while I was still resenting him for difficulties we had as kids. Toni Morrison was right up his alley (and still is). I disliked her as a way of staking out my own intellectual space.
(Short interjection: I’m writing in a cafe and they put sweetened condensed milk in my iced coffee. My best friend will enjoy that, for reasons between us. That’s what I get for disliking Beloved, I guess.)
There are a lot of things I could talk about with Beloved, and not all of them bad! I don’t want to spend too too much time on this, so I’m going to talk about the few that most illustrate my general feelings.
The first is Morrison’s prose style. The easiest way is with an example. Sethe, Denver, and Beloved are leaving Baby Suggs’ Clearing and Sethe is thinking about Paul D. She decides she wants him to stay with her. Among the description of their relationship is the following sentence: “The mind of him that knew her own.” The sentence is a good example of how, stylistically speaking, literary fiction can sometimes be nothing more than a Procrustean bed for the English language. How does this improve on “His mind knew hers”? or, “He knew her mind”? Sure, ownership, of others and the self, is a major theme, so perhaps Morrison wanted to work the word “own” in somehow? If so, it doesn’t help. That theme gets plenty of development–it’s a good theme.
But the sentence is a perfect example of the generally-overwrought style of literary fiction. The sentence doesn’t mean anything more than “His mind knew hers,” but the twisted, artificial stilt sounds literary, whatever that means, so it appeals to that group of moneyed Philistines known as the Nobel Committee for Literature.
It is not that Morrison writes complex sentences. Her prose has few coordinating conjunctions, semicolons, or long parentheticals. Older writers like Dickens and Chesterton tended to do that. Morrison’s sentences are generally grammatically simple, and aside from certain 19th-century agricultural words, she doesn’t use many words that would send you to a dictionary. Neither of those are complaints. Sometimes you need a big, specific, dictionary-sending word; most of the time you don’t. Morrison’s prose is just literary in the way described in the example above: stilted and artificial.
I thought a lot of my older brother when it came to my next two reactions. I read the first draft of his book. Like Morrison, my brother writes beautiful metaphors. Like Morrison, his novel was so clogged with them that you don’t so much read it as wade through it. Again in the Clearing, “Then Sethe, grabbing Beloved’s hair and blinking rapidly, separated herself. She later believed that it was because the girl’s breath was exactly like new milk that she said to her, stern and frowning, ‘You too old for that.’” (97f.) In the context of the grand (and compelling) theme of milk, nursing, the body, reproduction, life, this is a beautiful metaphor.
Metaphors are often misunderstood. Figurative language does not evokes, nor does it explain or illustrate. It adds. Breath cannot be like new milk, unless we add to both breath and milk properties that they don’t actually have. (Sure, you could boil milk, inhale the steam, and breathe it on someone’s face, but that’s not what Beloved has done.)
For this reason, an evocative metaphor does not exist. Evocation is a property of the literal. If you describe a series of literal things, examples of which the reader has experience, the reader can create an image. (Here image includes smells, sounds, etc.) I could well be wrong, but I think I speak for most people when I say that when I read fiction, that mental image is the basis of my experience of the story. As I read, the descriptions of characters and events allow me to imagine those as they progress. But as I say, the basis for that evocation is description, and evocative description is literal, because human beings only ever experience the literal.
None of this is to disparage figurative language. It is simply to note that figurative language is just that—figurative. I can “experience” breath and I can “experience” milk, which is to say I can come into contact with both of those things in my literal life. If I want to liken them figuratively, that is a creative, rather than an evocative, process. I take the characteristics of both and try to imagine a similarity. That similarity is a new concept that is created, rather than evoked, in my mind.
Of course, in some sense my mind is creating all of these images, but if we want to imagine this as a difference of intensity rather than kind, that’s fine. The point remains the same: The Picture of Dorian Gray has a metaphor about a woman smiling like a “Malay Crease,” which is a kind of sword. “She smiled malevolently,” and “A malevolent, Malay Crease of a smile appeared on her face,” are meaningfully different kinds of mental creation.
Therefore the purpose of figurative language is not to build the mental image that is the basis for the reader’s experience. It serves for something else, to muddle, to twist, complicate, discomfort, practically anything that isn’t to evoke. It is for this reason that I believe overly-figurative prose tends to fail. Without a solid basis in the literal, a beautiful metaphor like breath like new milk has no pre-evoked mental image on which to build a new creation. It’s like painting: you can complain about Jackson Pollock’s expressive, chaotic, non-representational style, but he did paint onto canvas–canvas that was capable of catching and setting the paint. Over-figurative prose is like throwing paint into a flowing stream. Even the most beautiful paint in the world will flow around the next bend and out of sight. There. Have a metaphor.
I could say more on this issue of literal vs. figurative—and when Morrison does give the clear and literal, it’s intense—but I’ll get to my last point. Beloved shares another feature with my brother’s book that’s worth mentioning. It’s connected to the issue of the literal. There is definitely a strain in some literary fiction that considers it somehow plebeian to give your reader any information. God forbid you should just tell your reader what’s going on. This reminded me of Faulkner, whose The Sound and the Fury is a another proof of how the Nobel Prize for Literature is just a yardstick for the incomprehensible. (Sorry, dearo.)
(Although now that I think of it, Hemingway also won the Nobel Prize. Maybe they only take clear writing if it’s also macho sludge?)
I think this has to do with how I believe meaning is created in storytelling. It’s connected to my experience of the image. As I was finishing Beloved, I thought a good comparison was actually Madeline Miller’s Circe, in just one respect. In the broadest sense, both of them feature mothers who carry staggering (and deeply moving) love for children. Obviously these characters are completely different and exist in completely different contexts. But why I was moved by their love for their children has a certain narrative similarity.
We do not believe in this love because of long passages of stream-of-consciousness babble in which each mother declares that love. (Such a passage is in only one of these books. Guess.) We believe in it because of what each character does. The reader is moved by Circe’s love not when she talks about how much she loves Telegonus, but when she threatens to fistfight Athena over him. Similarly, Sethe’s love is most powerful in her act of infanticide.
Once again, these are completely different contexts. I invoke Circe only to illustrate the importance of action. Sethe’s infanticide is a thousand times more powerful than any other description either of Sethe’s love or of American slavery within Beloved. The reader doesn’t need to hear any more: we’ve seen it. So why subject me to over half the novel’s worth of descriptions before finally making the infanticide explicit on page 158? Just … you know … tell me the events so I can be moved by them? Murdering your child to keep her out of slavery is moving enough. All this “deeply evocative” description around it is distracting.
I get it. Much of this is taste. Not everybody reads fiction for the same reasons I do. I read them for plots, events, actions, decisions, that is, for drama. That’s only one reason to read. I won’t pretend my reasons are better than anyone else’s. I disliked Beloved because it gave precious little drama. One might argue that creating a “traditional plot” with drama would have deprived it of something else. I’m skeptical, but that may we be that what it would lose isn’t worth anything to me in the first place. And it may well be that not everyone reads with a mental image like I do, or even that others’ images are less literal and more flexible than mine.
But anyway. I get to tell people I’ve read it now, which is nice. And there are images that will stay with me: Baby Suggs’ Clearing congregations, Stamp Paid’s red ribbon tied to a girl’s scalp, Halle covered in butter, schoolteacher’s measuring (this one is particularly horrid). The book has worth in those things; of course, those things are images, and I remember them because they were available, plain, given to the reader instead of hidden behind a veil as an offering at the gilded altar of that grand, mighty god called “you just didn’t get it.”