Song of Solomon
Natives of poverty, children of malheur
The gaiety of language is our seigneur
Wallace Stevens’s words might be the epigraph for the work of both Gayl Jones and Toni Morrison, writers very different from each other, whose wonderful richness and vitality of language in a curious way obscure the moral and physical horror of the similar worlds they create or, perhaps, describe. Milkman Dead, the hero of Morrison’s new novel Song of Solomon, has a girlfriend who is trying to kill him. He tells a friend, whose only response is to say:
“Would you ask your visitor to kind of neaten things up a little before she goes? I don’t want to come back and have to look through a pile of cigarette butts for your head. Be nice if it was laying somewhere I could spot it right off. And if it’s her head that’s left behind, well, there’s some towels in the closet on the shelf in the back.”
The flippant tone conceals assumptions common to both speakers, that it is usual for a disappointed woman to come after you with a knife; that you may have to kill her before she kills you. And later the friend will try to kill Milkman.
This novel, and to an even greater extent Morrison’s earlier novels The Bluest Eye and Sula, and the stories in Gayl Jones’s collection White Rat, like her earlier novels Corregidora and Eva’s Man, entirely concern black people who violate, victimize, and kill each other. Little girls are raped by their fathers, by the boyfriends of their mothers, by neighbor boys. Little boys are drowned by neighbor girls. Women are beaten, mothers burn their sons to death, daughters abandon their mothers. No relationships endure, and all are founded on exploitation. The victimization of blacks by whites is implicit but not the subject. The picture given by both Jones and Morrison of the plight of the decent, aspiring individual in the black family and community is more painful than the gloomiest impressions encouraged by either stereotype of sociology.
It is interesting to notice that despite the chorus of rightly admiring remarks about the power and talent of both writers, little attention has been paid to what they actually seem to be saying, as if the mere execution of work as poetic and vigorous as this—by women, and black women at that—were sufficiently remarkable without the complicating features of meaning or moral commitment. Admittedly fiction is not as well suited to the representation of happiness and goodness as of pain and evil, but perhaps it’s more that no one wishes to believe in the unhappy lives they describe. Or it could be because both Morrison and Jones have chosen narrative modes that allow them to keep themselves and the reader at a distance from the content; but mostly it seems that meaning may have been overlooked out of embarrassment, because they write about things whites are afraid other whites may believe blacks…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.