Toni Morrison teaches literature and creative writing at Princeton as the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities.
Brian Lanker
A review of Jazz by Toni Morrison…

Editor’s note: This story from 1992 contains dated language that is no longer used today. In the interest of keeping a historical record, it appears here as it was originally published.

Heller McAlpin is a novelist and critic who lives in New York.

The publication of a new book by Toni Morrison, who has been the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton since 1988, is cause for attention. Two in one year, one fiction (Jazz) and one literary criticism (Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination), and each landing on a different New York Times bestseller list simultaneously (although the novel deservedly remained longer), is nothing short of a literary sensation.

In his gushingly adulatory piece in The Nation earlier this year, John Leonard focuses on Morrison’s fiction and wisely ignores her less successful volume of criticism (see accompanying review). “Beloved,” he writes of her previous novel, published in 1987, “belongs on the highest shelf of our literature even if half a dozen canonized Wonder Bread Boys have to be elbowed off. I can’t now picture our literature without it…” He compares Morrison, whose real name he reveals to be Chloe Anthony Wofford – news to this reader, at least – to Faulkner, Shakespeare, and Garcia Márquez, and confesses, “I find that I want to roll around in Morrison’s books, not a reviewed but an epicure, even a voluptuary.” He caps this with the declaration that Morrison “turns out to be the best writer working in America.”

There is certainly something awesome about Morrison. Her prose is voluptuous, her voice compelling, her intelligence and articulateness enough to make a sophisticated audience at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, where she gave a reading last spring, gasp on several occasions. Her images and moods are stunning – nowhere more so than in her many loving evocations of New York City, which figures so prominently in Jazz. It is a city that pulses with “below the sash and the buckled belt” music, a city where “daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half,” a city that “makes people think they can do what they want and get away with it,” a city where “sheets impossible to hang out in snowfall drape kitchens like the curtains of Abyssinian Sunday-school plays.” It is also a city where there is “no such thing as midlife” and where you experience “the amazement of throwing open the window and being hypnotized for hours by people on the street below.” It is a city that is as improvisational as the music that wafts through it, inventing and composing itself continuously, in a never-ending riff.

In Jazz, as in her first novel, The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, Morrison starts with a bang, slamming the situation home to her readers on the very first page like a deck of cards slapped onto the table all at once. Only after they are all fanned out does she circle back to pick them up, in various combinations, in order to examine the components of her deck more closely. She zeroes in on different aspects of it until we come to understand how the cards add up to a winning hand. Although The Bluest Eye is less riveting than Song of Solomon (1977) or Jazz, it has its aces.

The basic scenario in Jazz is this: Joe Trace, a fifty-year-old waiter at a hotel and a salesman of Cleopatra beauty products “hungry for the one thing everybody loses – young love,” has shot his eighteen-year-old lover, “his personal sweet,” Dorcas Manfred, because she is leaving him for a “rooster,” an arrogant young cock who cares little for her. Joe’s wife, Violet, as skinny as her curling iron, tries to slash the dead girl’s face at the funeral. Then, in “a crooked kind of mourning for a rival young enough to be a daughter,” Violet attempts to learn everything about Dorcas, even going so far as to thrust herself upon the dead girl’s aunt and guardian, Alice Manfred, and her best fried, Felice. The rather mysterious, disembodied voice that narrates the book comments wryly on Violet’s odd behavior: “Maybe she thought she could solve the mystery of love that way. Good luck and let me know.”

As in Morrison’s other novels, the characters in Jazz are haunted by their pasts, and Morrison eventually takes us back down South in order to encounter their history. In this case, we return to Vesper County, Virginia, which Joe and Violet left in 1906, joining “the wave of black people running from want and violence.”

We soon learn that none of the families in Jazz is whole. Dorcas’s father is trampled to death during the riots in East St. Louis in 1917. Then, like Sula in Morrison’s novel of the same name (1973), Dorcas sees her mother incinerated when her house is torched a few days later. She goes to live with her aunt Alice, a seamstress in New York City who tries to shield her niece, shutting her windows against the nasty music that pervades the City, “the lowdown stuff that signaled Imminent Demise.” Alice’s husband left her for another woman and turned up a corpse seven months later. This is what is behind Alice’s advice to the crazed Violet: “You got anything left to you to love, anything at all, do it.”

But Violet, alas, has her own emotional baggage to lug around. On the second page of the novel, before we can properly understand what she means, the narrator informs us that “the children of suicides are hard to please and quick to believe no one loves them because they are not really here.” Violet’s mother, Rose Dear, it turns out, threw herself down a well, “a place so narrow, so dark it was pure, breathing relief to see her stretched in a wooden box.” This happens after Violet’s father has to flee because of his involvement with the Readjuster Party, which promoted Negro suffrage, and after the family is dispossessed by a group of men who tip Rose Dear out of her chair “like the way you get the cat off the seat if you don’t want to touch it or pick it up in your arms.”

Violet’s grandmother, True Belle, comes to the rescue, leaving her white mistress Miss Vera Louise in Baltimore. As a slave of twenty-seven, True Belle was taken away from her husband and two small daughters. Now in her decline, she returns home with “ten eagle dollars” – twenty-two years of accumulated wages held in trust for her since Emancipation by Miss Vera Louise – and tales of her mistress’s half-black son Golden Gray, whom she helped raise. Her tales fill her granddaughter Violet with longing.

Violet’s life is bleak indeed when Joe literally falls into it – from a walnut tree on the farm on which they both work. Joe, born in 1873, was taken in by a couple with six children when his parents disappeared without a trace. So he explains the origin of the surname he gives himself: “The way I heard it I understood her to mean the ‘trace’ they disappeared without was me.” And, like many an abandoned child, he is doomed to spend a good part of his life in search of his missing parents.

What gives this novel an extra dimension – as if it needed it! – is Morrison’s tricky, modernist narrative device: her narrator with a “sweet tooth” for pain who drops clues all over the place as to her identity but never openly reveals it. At one point, she describes herself as “curious, inventive and well-informed”; at another, she confesses that she uses her imagination to fill in the details; at others, she chastises herself for being “careless and stupid” and even “unreliable.” Near the end of the book, she admits to having predicted the wrong outcome for her characters, but then lets herself off the hook, saying, “it’s my storm, isn’t it?” Could the voice be the author’s, we wonder? But wait. The voice addresses us at the end:

I love the way you hold me, how close you let me be to you. I like your fingers on and on, lifting, turning. I have watched your face for a long time now, and missed your eyes when you went away from me…Look where your hands are. Now.

I look, and they are holding Jazz. Morrison would have us believe that her novel, like they city in which it is set and the music for which it is named, has improvised itself. Contrived, do you think? Well, as Morrison reminded her audience at the 92nd Street Y, jazz is at once improvised and contrived.

This was originally published in the September 16, 1992 issue of PAW.