Beloved, by Toni Morrison

I have put off reading Morrison for many years, simply not drawn to her portrait of black society. But this is supposed to be one of her best, I thought, so let’s give it a try.

Once I started this 1987 book, however, I was immediately lost. Who is Baby Suggs? What is the relationship among these people? What is going on? Fortunately, there is a Foreword, and in it Morrison explains that she has deliberately dumped the reader into the middle of a complex situation. Because this is what life is, especially for black people, who must react to the world around them, often without help.

However, the relationships among these people remain unclear for some time. Especially when Beloved arrives on their doorstep, a young woman whom Denver, daughter of Sethe, relates to. Who is she? Is she a ghost? Because another baby has died earlier. And this new arrival not only has the same name but is the title character. So we know she is important.

There is also a white woman named Amy, who helps Sethe on the day she bears a child. Sethe is grateful, and learns her last name is Denver, which she likes. That baby appears to be Denver, now a teenager. What is clear is that this episode takes us back in time, that we are dealing here with events on different time levels. Which adds complexity to the relationships.

For a long while we have no reference point for the memories and interaction among Sethe, Beloved, Paul D, a former slave, and others. But with more detail, the relationships begin to come together. This is Faulkner territory to a degree, as we bounce around in time. Thus, Paul D escapes from a Georgia chain gang, moves in with Sethe, boots out a baby ghost, and then runs into the opposition of the newly-arrived Beloved, who suggests both that banished baby and a past returned to haunt the present.

Confusion is amplified as the story continues to move about in time, even introducing a new character, Stamp Paid, a ferryman who brought Sethe to freedom. He tries to persuade Paul D to make a realistic appraisal of Sethe, whom Stamp once found with two children, one covered with blood. Nothing is clearly stated, but the implication is that she has killed one child in order to preserve it from the life she has known. But, unlike in Faulkner, where confusion reigns but is eventually clarified, my frustration continues.

Until we remain in the present, where new details finally begin to make sense. That Stamp Paid stopped Sethe from killing Denver, after she had killed her other child, presumably Beloved, and tells this to a distraught Paul D. That Paul D and Beloved hate each other, and she is triumphant when he leaves after learning this. That Sethe still loves Beloved, and now tries to justify what she did by emphasizing the plight of fellow coloreds. But Beloved refuses to listen; and, as they argue, Beloved gains control over her mother, for Sethe is fearful Beloved will leave.

The climax occurs when Denver seeks a job with Quaker abolitionist Bodwin in order to support Sethe and Beloved, but to get that job she has to reveal the situation at home. Which riles up the local woman, who gather at the house to pray just as Bodwin arrives to pick up Denver. At the height of the action, Sethe rushes from Beloved’s side to attack Bodwin, thinking he is a slave catcher. This act also frees her from Beloved. And from her past?

A chapter later, we learn what happened and that Beloved is gone. The house also appears empty, except the faithful Paul D finds Sethe lying in bed, as grandmother Suggs did before she died. Who was Beloved, the town asks. Did she really exist? A final chapter recalls how she has been forgotten.

To sum up, this novel’s mysteriousness and misdirection certainly hearkens back to Faulkner. Why did Morrison take this approach? Partly, I think, because so much of the action is internal, and that while the life of the colored people is vividly captured, not much happens dramatically in the novel’s present. What happens is offstage or in the past, and often told indirectly, with the emphasis on the reaction to those developments.

As presented here, my interests were too much distributed among Sethe, Denver, Paul D, and Stamped Paid. Might the latter two, in fact, have been combined? And Beloved, torn between being real and being a ghost, is not vivid enough. She is described more through others reacting to her than through her acting on them. She thus becomes a symbol more than a real person. Especially when she is naked at the end, and some outsiders see her and some do not.

This work does not urge me to seek further Morrison. I must work too hard to understand what is going on. Which is deliberate, as I said, for the Foreword states: “I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population—just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.”

This is a valid purpose. And the work is beautifully written. But the approach makes it difficult to identify with the characters, as the author both moves from one character to another and moves back and forth in time. This is another case in which the events are not told sequentially. Often this is to hide the lack of a dramatic cause and effect, but here it is also because Morrison is emphasizing the significance of the events rather than the events themselves, and the repercussions of the events rather than their causes.

I can understand why Morrison is thought of so highly. Her message, her portrait of where today’s black society came from, is important. And perhaps requiring the reader to dig for that portrait and its repercussions is a valid means to impress that history on the white reader. But I for one would rather have been so immersed in the fate of these characters—instead of having to figure them out—that the same message would have been implanted in my emotions as much as in my mind. Which, I suggest, is the more traditional literary approach. And one that I am more comfortable with.

I regret my reaction to this work. I am still a conservative in literary terms, however, even if I am liberal in social and political terms. (June, 2015)

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The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht

This 2010 work is a remarkable novel. And a highly imaginative one. Written by a young woman wise far beyond her years. Wise, especially, in being able to recreate what one speculates was the experience of her family and their suffering in a violent era of two world wars. It is also a complicated novel, shifting back and forth between the woman narrator Natalia’s present life, as a doctor dealing with the ills of society as well as the death of her beloved grandfather, and the life of that grandfather when he is nine years old. a major war is on the horizon, and his innocent life is complicated by the presence of a legendary tiger.

The reader moves back and forth between these two eras of time as well as from a world of reality to a more primitive world of superstition and legend. That is, to the world of the tiger and that of a deaf mute woman who has fled a violent marriage—arranged much like that of the Biblical Jacob—and found solace in the company of that tiger, who has fled the domesticated life of the local zoo after the city was bombed.

The physical descriptions of the war-torn landscape, of ruined cities, distraught citizens, and a fertile countryside, is brilliant, and yet the exact location of these events is never indicated, although it is clearly Eastern Europe and suggests the tumultuous history of Yugoslavia, where the author was born. The explanation appears to be that Obreht is aware that if the legendary aspects of her novel are to be credible she needs to remove that legendary portion from the world of specific reality.

But if the geography is elusive, what is not is the presence of death. In an era of warfare, death is everywhere, of course. And here it is given its reality through “the deathless man,” whom the grandfather continually encounters in his life, a man who is constantly being killed but never dies. He is, in fact, the author’s messenger of death, as he serves coffee to those he meets and then reads the coffee ground to determine if they are about to die. And, yet, like other “villains” of this novel, the author makes him human. She does so by her tale of why he was condemned not to die— because he once relieved a girl he loved from the death that she was fated to suffer. Note also that a subsidiary theme of this novel is how doctors, both the grandfather and the girl, deal with the constant presence of death.

What is amazing is that Obreht, who left Yugoslavia at seven, is now an American and wrote this work while studying for her MFA at Cornell. The novel was published when she was only 25. Her talent was immediately recognized by The New Yorker, when it ran an excerpt, and one can see many chapters that could have been extracted from the final manuscript. For she has written here a number of set pieces and a number of character studies that can easily stand alone. Not that they do not belong, for the character studies, in particular, humanize and help the reader to understand characters whose actions would otherwise seem abhorrent. For even as they portray the violence in these particular human beings, such as Luka, the abusive husband of the tiger’s wife, they also demonstrate how such villains came to commit their violent acts.

The structure of the novel revolves around Natalia’s attempt to discover the circumstance of the mysterious death of her grandfather. How well did he know he was going to die? Why did he leave home and his wife in order to die? Why did he go to the small town he went to? Why did he say he went there to visit Natalia, when that was not the case? In her own attempt to answer those questions while she is away on a mission to help the unfortunate, Natalia recalls her life with her grandfather, beginning with how he took her regularly to the zoo, where he passed on to her his fascination with tigers. As she searches for her answers, she discovers—from her memories and from those who knew her grandfather—about the deathless man, the tiger, and the tiger’s “wife.”

The major problem I had with this novel was being unable to remember where the story was each day when I returned to it. As vivid as the writing was, as interesting as the various tales were, the events themselves did not stick with me from one day to the next. Which perhaps goes to the point of some critics, who have said that there is not enough substance behind the beautiful, evocative writing. Nor enough connection among Natalia’s story, her grandfather’s story, the war story, and the legends of the deathless man and of the tiger and his wife. Another explanation for the abrupt moving back and forth in time is technical. For it helps to create suspense when we leave one era at a climactic moment, and return to the drama of the other era.

Yet, to balance that, I was fascinated each day by the content I was reading, and in my final analysis, I do believe the pieces fit together. And if the final fates of the characters is not clear—that of the tiger, of the tiger’s wife, of the tiger’s wife’s husband, of the grandfather, and even of others I have not mentioned, such as the Darisa, a great bear of a hunter and the tiger’s enemy—is that not often the case in real life? And is it especially not the case in the legends we recall, where the otherworld mysteriousness is the point, not the actual conclusion of the tale?

I believe Obreht wanted to pour into this work everything she felt about life and its meaning. That such meaning, for example, goes far beyond the reality we live, that it also includes a reality we don’t live but do imagine. Often, what we wish had happened. Which can turn into legend. But the author also shows that the meaning of life can be found in death, in whether we accept its arrival and in how we react to that knowledge. Thus, the presence of the deathless man.

I often disagree with Michiko Kakutani, but her New York Times review offers a summary of Obreht’s approach that is quite interesting: “It’s not so much magical realism in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Gunter Grass,” she writes, “as it is an extraordinary limber exploration of allegory and myth making and the ways in which narratives (be they superstitions, cultural beliefs or supernatural legends) reveal—and reflect back— the identities of individuals and communities: their dreams, fears, sympathies and hatreds.”

What Obreht accomplishes so effectively here is to mine the specific to reveal the universal. Time and again, her characters extract great truths from their daily life, their daily suffering. That war and its violence, in current parlance, is a game-changer, that our lives are never the same again, that we see life far differently, that out of daily experience comes a long view of history, of both man’s significance in that history and the value of each man’s life.

A story built around the relationship between a grandfather and a granddaughter is quite rare, and Obreht discusses this in an interview. She says that grandchildren often cannot relate to their parents’ lives but do want to know about their grandparents’ lives, lives that belong to an earlier era they cannot identify with but that they are curious about. She also says her own father was not in her life, but that she had a close relationship with her grandfather, who often did take her to the zoo. But beyond that, she says, this novel is not autobiographical. Of course, emotionally, it is quite autobiographical, and her relationship with her grandfather is why it is so successful. It is the starting point, and gives the novel its heart.

In the same interview, Obreht says she is not sure what she will write next, but does acknowledge her continuing interest in the Balkans. And I myself would not mind visiting that world again. But this raises the same question I had on finishing her novel. What will come next? She has put into this work so much of her knowledge of life, so much of her own family relationships, so much of her own awareness of legend and the imagination, what is left to inspire her? One might find it difficult to move from this to her view of American life. Perhaps there is something in her relationship with her mother, with whom she moved to Cyprus, to Egypt, and then to America. There may also be a germ in the fact that her grandfather was Catholic and that her grandmother was Moslem, and how they got along in a society that often did not.

In any event, both the literary world and I will be deeply interested in what comes next. It will have to be truly marvelous to top this work. Which often second novels are not. Perhaps the key will be how much more she discovers about life. How much more she is able to penetrate into the heart and into the soul of the people she writes about. This novel, as profound as it is, is more about surfaces. About the legends that we build to explain our lives. I might be more interested in the changes that occur within her characters, perhaps as a result of the same violence that inspires these legends. (November, 2014)

the thorny grace of it, by Brian Doyle

Because I am acquainted with the author, I feel a certain trepidation in commenting on this new (2013) interesting collections of essays, essays in which each one carries a small spiritual or family message. The emphasis is on the smallness, for these essays run only three or four pages. But each makes a pithy statement that crosses our spiritual heritage with our common humanity.

In fact, I would not ordinarily write a comment about a book like this. But I do so, because I relate to it. The author has a spiritual perspective that I share. And I have long realized that making a comment helps me to think further about a book—and appreciate it more.

In retrospect, what strikes me first is that, in this era of Church factions, it is impossible here to assign Doyle within the Catholic political spectrum. He comes closest when he evaluates Pope John Paul II, both his strengths  (“a man of stunning presence and charisma, a corporate leader of wonderful creativity, a figure of light and hope for many millions”) and his weaknesses (“ a man who choked off liberation theology…a man who presided over a church riven with the rapes of children…a man who…dismissed women from any serious role”).

And one senses that this political reticence is deliberate. That neither he nor the publications he wrote for wish to make a political statement regarding Church doctrine. Instead, he explores the common elements in our daily human experience, an experience that often but not always arises out of our spiritual life.

He subtitles this book Essays for Imperfect Catholics. For he is often exploring the human weaknesses in our family life and our spiritual life. That we do not always live up to our idea of spiritual perfection. Or human perfection. And what Doyle does here is recognize this—and in doing so acknowledges his past naïveté, his current regret, or his often belated understanding.

Most of his essays reveal something of his own inner life, but a few also touch the reader’s own sensibility. For me, these include: exaggerated speculation on Jesus’ life in his missing teenage years; a humorous evaluation of Catholic writers by the imaginary Saint Francis de Sales Parish Book Club; an archbishops letter of resignation at age 75; a brother’s advice on how to keep a priest off-balance when in confession (keep bringing up lust); and the memory of hauling storm windows up from the cellar each winter.

Some essays are humorous, some are touching, some strike a cord of memory. An example of the humor: “From the age of thirteen when a boy in Jewish tradition enters manhood, to the age of thirty, when a boy in Irish-American tradition enters manhood.” An example of both empathy and self-awareness: “On the way home, I thought about…how these sweet honest funny moments [a baptism] are so holy I cannot easily find words for them, which is why we share these stories, which is what we just did.”

Other essays range from a regret at the life Osama bid Laden chose; to an essay on his father, his own fatherhood, and the Father; to the story of a star basketball guard who turns down scholarships to enter the marines—and loses his left hand in battle.

The range of these essays portrays a man who understands that a full life includes a spiritual life. He is a man who understands the meaning of family, of community, and of our eternal destiny. But he is also a writer who understands the power of a revelation to be found in a single moment, a moment we may all have experienced but most likely have never thought of again.

This is a modest book. It is for a very special audience. An audience which acknowledge its spiritual life and makes it a part of its daily living. It is more a book to be dipped into as a reminder of that life than a book to be read in one sitting. It is a book that enriches the reader who pauses and thinks for a moment after reading each essay. And in offering a special opportunity for reflection, each of these essays opens to ourselves an opportunity to review our own experience with our family and our church in a timeline of eternity. (January, 2014)