Feathered Wombs

Zoë Heller

  • Paradise by Toni Morrison
    Chatto, 300 pp, £16.99, April 1998, ISBN 0 7011 6041 1

Something amazing has happened to Toni Morrison’s reputation in the United States. Over the last ten years, since the publication of Beloved, her fifth novel, she has been catapulted from the teeming ranks of well-known, well-respected fiction writers, to the thin-aired plane reserved for America’s deities and seers. Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 had something to do with this of course, but Morrison’s status in American culture goes beyond, and is certainly not reducible to, the approbation of the Swedes. She appears on the cover of the New York Review of Books and Time magazine. She is required reading in American schools and colleges, and very probably the subject of more doctoral dissertations than any other contemporary American writer. She is Oprah Winfrey’s Favourite Author. (In gratitude for which honour, she has, by the way, made several Papal appearances on Oprah’s Book Club, delivering gnomic verities about Literature and Life to a slightly confounded, but droolingly reverent studio audience.) In the great halls of the New York Public Library, an extract from her Nobel Prize acceptance speech has been graven on the stone wall.

For Morrison, the last tribute is, I suspect, particularly gratifying. Much of her fiction, with its Biblical rhythms, ancestral-sounding wisdom and flashes of rhapsodic poetry, has seemed to strive precisely for this sort of lapidary status. Nowhere is the aspiration more amply illustrated than in her latest novel, Paradise. Set in Oklahoma in the Sixties, Paradise tells the story of an isolated, all-black town called Ruby, struggling in vain to hang onto the rigid principles of religious obedience and racial purity on which it was founded. It begins with an account of nine townsmen invading a house 17 miles outside Ruby and killing the four women who live there. The house, known as the Convent, was once a Catholic school for Native American girls, but has evolved, since the death of the mother superior, into a sort of refuge for abused, rejected and otherwise suffering women. Now, the presence of these wild-seeming, sexually unattached females has become a convenient symbol and scapegoat for all that threatens the town patriarchs and their Old Testament ideals.

In the ensuing chapters, Morrison relates the individual histories of the Convent women and their attackers. Pieced together, these narratives create an impressively intricate mosaic – a portrait both of the Ruby community and of Sixties America. They also give flesh to Morrison’s extended, but rather less intricate meditation on conflicting interpretations of God and God’s will. While Ruby’s old guard insist on understanding God as a punitive CEO figure who demands absolute obeisance from his employees, the town’s younger generation, spearheaded by the Baptist minister, Reverend Misner, are rooting for a less stingy and forbidding divinity – one whose nature is revealed most fully in the human capacity for love. These opposing theological viewpoints have social and political corollaries. The young people advocate change, equality with whites, militancy. The patriarchs are reactionary, conservative, fiercely separatist. They hate whites passionately, but dismiss the civil rights movement that is springing up in the rest of the country as wrongheaded and doomed to failure. Like the women out at the Convent, the new breed of activists are seen as unruly forces, hostile to the narrow little sanctuary of their town.

Early on in the book, Morrison does a fine job of maintaining a genuine moral and dramatic tension between these opposing viewpoints. The young men and women of Ruby are fervent and sincere, but also impatient and tactless: we share the indignation and affront of the town elders when these upstarts try to lecture them on black history. The Convent commune, housing as it does the gamut of female victimhood, seems to have the strongest claim on Morrison’s imaginative sympathy. (The women all have a slightly grandiose, metaphorical way of talking – Morrison’s traditional way of signalling the superior soulfulness conferred by suffering.) But even here, she stops short of idealising the women. While paying homage to their anguish, Morrison makes it clear that they are, in fact, a rather feckless, sloppy lot. Far from having been sanctified by their pain, they are shown to be lazy, shallow, quarrelsome and dim.

Such pleasing moral complexity does not last, however. Pretty soon, Morrison is hard at work, striking the set of messy human conflict that she has put in place and substituting for it an unambiguous, profoundly sentimental contest between good and evil. This is a familiar trajectory. At some point, all Morrison’s major novels seem to lose patience with the finicky business of recording moral blur, choosing to swerve off into the realm of moral fable and preacherly uplift. Often, as in Paradise, the change is marked by an onset of gloopily ‘miraculous’ events.

In the past, Morrison has defended the frequent resort to the supernatural in her novels as a means of enlarging the narrowness of a purely empirical world view. Angels and ghosties are her way of cleansing the doors of perception to show us the infinite. But magic realism is a dangerous drug. Too heavy a reliance on its charms begins to look like the opposite of imagination – the grown-up equivalent of ‘And then he woke up and realised it had all been a dream.’ It can also result in a rather deadly literalism. In Paradise, the Biblical allusions that have hitherto remained latent in the dense specificity of the plot coalesce into stark allegory. Buried themes of sacrifice and redemption are yanked rudely to the surface with a flurry of actual resurrections. The prose turns a furious purple.

A strain of portentous lyricism is never very far from the surface in Paradise. But as the book’s magico-Christian message lumbers into view, it threatens to take over. The characters increasingly abandon idiomatic speech for a mythic Kingdom-Comeparlance, while the narrative itself dissolves into Adrienne Rich-ish poetry. Take this sentence:

Consolata listened to the refusing silence, more wondering than annoyed by the sky, in plumage now, gold and blue-green, strutting like requited love on the horizon.

Or this one:

Speeding toward the unforeseeable, sitting next to him who was darker than the darkness they split, Consolata let the feathers unfold and come unstuck from the walls of a stone-cold womb.

Feathers what? Stone-cold what? Some people go shivery with pleasure reading this stuff and it doesn’t really do, I suppose, to tell them that they shouldn’t. This is ‘fine writing’ in the same way that a certain kind of restaurant food is understood to lend itself to ‘fine dining’. Each to his own. But one is allowed to feel some regret that someone as properly talented as Morrison is prepared to cater to such a degraded taste. A writer capable of creating a world as rich and fully-realised as Ruby doesn’t need to dabble in the faux-solemnity of feathered wombs.