When I distill down what I want from reading, most of the time at least, I argue that it’s the desire to feel something. I want the writer to make me feel something, whatever that feeling amounts to, happiness, anguish, horror, love, longing, and so on.
But what if an entire book was a feeling? And it vibrated with that feeling instead of being something more structurally cohesive? What if that book took the name of a musical genre that is akin to a feeling more than something structurally cohesive? Yes, I’m talking about Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel, Jazz, which also marks the first time I’ve read any of Morrison’s esteemed works.
This feeling Morrison has created vibrates, and one could say improvises like jazz does, between the past, present and future, among different characters’ point-of-views, and an elusive narrator, to reflect the ways in which love, fear of love, reckless love, command our lives, and in this novel, the lives of black women, largely in a 1920s urban city. The City itself, which seems to be Harlem, evokes a sense of being its own character, so much so, one could even argue the narrator is the City itself. Who better than the City to know all that is going on within it and leading up to it? The City is alive, something distinct from the country where our two primary characters, Joe Trace and his wife “Violent” Violet, come from.
Based on an evocative picture Morrison saw of a woman in a casket, placed there by her lover after he shot her, the “narrative” is essentially that — Joe, a man in his 50s who sells beauty products, falls in love with a teenager, shoots her dead, and then at the funeral, his wife, attacks the girl’s corpse — and all the ways Morrison is able to weave generational, rhythmic storytelling out of that one “image,” if you will, is rather stunning and beautiful. Her writing, at this jazz-inspired level, is exquisite. It is one of those bits of writing where, if I was someone inclined to highlight (and I am decidedly not), I would be highlighting most of the pages I was reading.
One line in particular stuck with me enough to jot it into my notes because it echoed a quote I’ve heard from James Baldwin. Morrison writes, “They fill their mind and hands with soap and repair and dicey confrontations because what is waiting for them, in a suddenly idle moment, is the seep of rage.” And hiding behind that, is a deep sorrow. Oof.
The Baldwin quote was similar, when asked in 1961 about being black in America, he responded, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time — and in one’s work.”
Morrison’s novel evokes that sense of rage, but also that sense of wanting to be defined by something more than the rage. To be loose. To be alive. To be jazzy. Without fear of being crushed, overtaken. To move beyond one’s “lane,” which they haven’t even selected by choice. To choose. To choose chaos for chaos’ own sake, as Dorcas, the teen Joe loves, does when she takes a younger, more unpredictable man, which set Joe to killing her.
In this way, to desire so strongly and fiercely and without shame, is akin to relishing in the choice of eating the apple in the Garden of Eden, because as Morrison said (to paraphrase), how sweet it must have been to be the first person to bite into the skin of an apple? Or as a reviewer from the San Francisco Chronicle put it, this book is where “sin is just another word for appetite.”
Think about it in another way: Black people were so … bottled up, for lack of a better phrase, for centuries. Chained up works better. Whipped into compliance. Killed into compliance. As warning into compliance. And yes, even under such circumstances, African culture still found a way. But in the decades that followed the end of slavery, the end of Reconstruction, and the advent of the Roaring Twenties, it was almost like a decade of liberation for what was lost. Making up for lost time. Black Americans were hungry. And so much culture, decidedly American culture, was birthed from it.
Admittedly, Morrison’s novel, because of its improvisational stream-of-consciousness jazz style was difficult to follow at times — just as I couldn’t give you a good interpretation of the lovely notes I’m hearing while listening to Miles Davis’, Kind of Blue album, a fitting ambiance as I write this particular review — but I think that works? Because, again, it is a feeling and I felt the feelings. I think chief among them was the longing evident in Morrison’s characters, for whatever it was they were longing for, love, belonging, to matter, to know a truth of a kind, and so on.
I eagerly anticipate reading more of Morrison’s work.