Books: Paradise Found

The Nobel Prize changed Toni Morrison's life but not her art, as her new novel proves

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How they come to pin the blame for this disruption on the strange women in the Convent is a tale of Faulknerian complexity and power. Morrison once wrote a Cornell master's thesis on Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, and the Mississippian's incantatory prose rhythms still crop up in her writing. Here is Deacon musing on the past as he drives around in Ruby: "He [Deacon's grandfather] would have been embarrassed by grandsons who worked twelve hours five days a week instead of the eighteen-to-twenty-hour days Haven people once needed just to keep alive, and who could hunt quail for pleasure rather than the desperate need to meet a wife and eight children at table without shame." Can this intense imaginative sympathy really come from an author who is merely intent on making a feminist argument?

Then there is the subject of race. It is not mentioned a great deal in Paradise, perhaps because nearly all the characters are black. It is almost impossible to identify the white woman whose shooting is announced in the novel's opening sentence. As the women drift, singly, into the Convent, the reader--knowing what lies in store for the white one--must wonder: Is it Mavis? Grace? Seneca? Pallas?

"I did that on purpose," Morrison says. "I wanted the readers to wonder about the race of those girls until those readers understood that their race didn't matter. I want to dissuade people from reading literature in that way." And she adds: "Race is the least reliable information you can have about someone. It's real information, but it tells you next to nothing."

This assertion may surprise some people, since it comes from the author who almost single-handedly gave African-American women their rightful place in American literature. Racial questions have figured prominently in many of Morrison's critical essays. But there is really no contradiction between what she says now and what she has written in the past. She views her life and work as a struggle against the use of racial categories, or any categories, as a means of keeping groups of people powerless and excluded. She resents seeing her writing pigeonholed by her skin color. "I was reading some essay about the Black Family"--she makes quotation marks with her fingers--"and the writer went into a comparison between one of my novels and The Cosby Show." She shakes her head and smiles. "That's like comparing apples and Buicks."

Looking back over her 66 years, Morrison says, "Being able to laugh got me through," and she does so far more often in private conversations than her dignified and rather somber public image would suggest. She jokes about her childhood in Lorain, Ohio. "I was the one with the anonymous birth order. There was my older sister, firstborn; me, void; my younger brother, first son; and another son, the family baby. Feeling left out, and trying to attract attention, I became the noisiest of them all."

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