New York-- Toni Morrison makes you believe in the story, and the power of the story, but most of all you believe in her story. You can feel it right away in the way she talks. She has a low voice that can sound downright seductive as it sweeps along a sentence. She has the cadences down just right, the inflections. Just as in her writings, she strings along thoughts and words, one after the other -- building on them to an often unexpected but powerful conclusion. All you need is a campfire and a group of listeners reduced to ineffectual silence.
So when she sat down to write "Jazz," her just published novel of Harlem in the 1920s, Toni Morrison was not going to give her readers the usual about dancers and jazz musicians at the Cotton Club, or the poets and writers of the Harlem Renaissance, or any of that dressed-up, repackaged nonsense about the high life and good times in what then was arguably the most important black enclave in the world. What she wanted, Toni Morrison says in a wonderfully evocative phrase, was "to make it strange again."
In her publisher's office, Ms. Morrison stares off reflectively as she relates the thinking behind "Jazz," her first novel since "Beloved" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. That book was about slavery, a most indelicate subject, but one that Ms. Morrison managed to write about with extraordinary skill and sensitivity.
"I wanted to take it [Harlem] away from what was familiar and make it what I think is the Jazz Age," Ms. Morrison, 61, begins. "People think of (the) Harlem of that era in nostalgia terms. I wanted to look at it as though there were no celebrities, there was no Renaissance.
"But even if there were, what about the people who were livinduring that epoch? I wanted to get a bit closer to the marrow, to what it may have been like and why it got that way. I didn't want to go through the Cotton Club, and all those things we are familiar with. A lot of people were disappointed that I didn't put some famous people in 'Jazz.' They said, 'Why couldn't you have just sprinkled them in? What about [poet] Langston Hughes?' They felt really bereft."
Thus, "Jazz," like Ms. Morrison's five other novels, is distinctly her own story. The book centers around Joe and Violet, a poor couple fleeing their life in rural Virginia. Most of the characters are transplanted Southerners, who came every which way to "the City" to escape brutality, or dreary lives without hope. ("The wave of black people running from want and violence crested in the 1870s; the '80s; the '90s but was a steady stream in 1906 when Joe and Violet joined it.")
As their train neared New York, Joe and Violet actually danced: "And like a million others, chests pounding, tracks controlling their feet, they stared out the windows for first sight of the City that danced with them, proving already how much it loved them. Like a million more, they could hardly wait to get there and love it back."
But Joe and Violet, and so many others, also found out about loss -- of family, of values, of their roots and what it was that defined them. He grows alienated from her, and finally takes a lover, a 17-year-old girl named Dorcas, but shoots her to death a few months later. Already a tormented soul who had undergone great hardship, Violet becomes even more strange: After attempting to stab Dorcas' face at the funeral, she finds a picture of her rival and puts it on the mantel at home. She seeks out all who knew Dorcas. Throughout the book, we discover the pain that she and Joe have known, singly and collectively; "the City" serves both as backdrop and agent of change.
Judging from the early reception accorded "Jazz," it should reaffirm Ms. Morrison's standing as a major American writer. Published with a first printing of 175,000, a high figure for a "literary" writer, "Jazz" has received mostly glowing reviews ("immensely exhilarating," wrote Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times). It quickly became a best seller and should remain so throughout the summer.
Though Toni Morrison seems to have been with us so long, she came to all this late in life. Her first book, "The Bluest Eye," was published in 1969, when she was 38 and an editor at Random House. She was only a few years removed from teaching English at Howard University, from which she had graduated in 1953.
After "The Bluest Eye" came "Sula" in 1973 and "Solomon's Song," which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978. "Tar Baby" followed in 1981 and then, six years later, her great novel about slavery and a house in Ohio haunted by the ghost of a girl named Beloved. She has remained an editor at Random House, where she has actively encouraged black writers, and since 1989 has been a professor at Princeton University.
Along the way, she's become one of those rare people whmanages to top one achievement after another. Any encore after "Beloved" would suffer, one might suppose, yet with "Jazz" Ms. Morrison hasn't faltered.
It's a book she worked on especially hard -- and one, she says with quiet pride, that means a great deal to her.
"It was a lot of work," she says. "I'm very proud of what I did technically in 'Jazz.' All sorts of rich structural and linguistic things surfaced in me in writing this book."
Now Ms. Morrison leans back in her chair and laughs heartily -- an abrupt swing in tone, as in her writing. "I mean, it was hard, hard, hard to write that way," she says, and the graying braids on her head glint magnificently in the brilliant spring sun coming through the window; she manages, quite easily, to project both a sense of great dignity and of absurdist humor.
"I wanted to fold into the book some of the elements we know of
jazz: the license, the personality, the hunger and all of that in the text, and to try to get back to what it is," she continues. That's why she wanted to write "Jazz" the book to simulate jazz the music: in an improvisational way, "sort of finding a particular theme and changing it around, seeing where it would lead to."
A lyrical writer
"Jazz" makes references to raucous house parties driven by the latest "hot" records, and guitar-playing bluesmen on sidewalks, and the moody, melancholy strains of a clarinet that echo in the neighborhood on a quiet morning. Then again, her work has always had both a lyrical and musical sense. Novelist Anne Tyler, reviewing "Beloved" for The Sun in September 1987, noted that the book's writing style "works something like music. The narrative circles a point and then touches down, then backs off again. It hints at something three and four times before at last blurting it out."
For Toni Morrison, that's the secret of telling the tale: The reader and listener must be kept off-balance. Time and place shift disconcertingly throughout a narrative. Violence of unspeakable proportions is written about with a poetic touch.
Even in "The Bluest Eye," this gift was apparent. The protagonist, Pecola Breedlove, was a black girl struggling with self-hatred, and Ms. Morrison captured her anguish with such passages as this: "I destroyed white baby dolls. But the dismembering of dolls was not the true horror. The truly horrifying thing was the transference of the same impulses to little white girls."
For her latest book, Ms. Morrison says, "I had to subvert the confidence about knowing."
And what did that mean?
"Take the plot of 'Jazz,' " she answers. "It's a nice, simple story about some old people who make some mistakes and get back together again. What was interesting to me was how that [unnamed narrator's] voice would tell the story, so that the
melody sort of weaves in and out, and sometimes it looks different this way and sometimes it looks different that way. You go someplace where you hit a wrong note, but that error may not be the point. You take yourself somewhere other than from where you started. And then you're surprised at yourself and in someplace a little different."
She acknowledges that as "Beloved" focused on the lives of blacks around the time of the Civil War, "Jazz" picks up the story of the next generation: those born not in slavery, but affected by its aftermath in uncounted ways. As in "Beloved," the lives of the characters are almost unimaginably horrific.
There's a chilling scene in which Violet and her siblings watch while white men take, stick by stick, every bit of property on their shabby farm, which is being repossessed. Her mother, Rose Dear, merely stares straight ahead as she sits. When the men get to the last piece of furniture -- her chair -- they tilt her forward. "She didn't jump up right away, so they shook it a bit and since she still stayed seated -- looking ahead at nobody -- they just tipped her out of it 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."
People struggling to carry on despite the circumstances is a common theme in Ms. Morrison's books, illustrated most graphically in "Beloved" but shown just as disquietingly in "Jazz."
Her characters are heroic, but they are not invincible. Some turn to murder or suicide; others go insane. Joe's mother becomes a mystery woman who lives in the woods, and someone reassures him: "She got reasons. Even if she crazy. Crazy people got reasons." The dedication to "Beloved" reads "Sixty Million and More," which is the figure one historian gave her for the number of people who died under slavery.
Ms. Morrison grows somber when asked about the way she depicts her characters as so vulnerable, so fragile and close to the edge. "There's a line in 'Jazz' when Rose Dear's mother tells her, 'He [God] ain't give you nothing you can't bear,' " she says after a moment. "Well, that's not really true all the time. Most people do bear up well under a lot of strain, but they do break down. They do crack. There comes a time when you just say, 'I just can't take it any more.' "
Her next book will be set in the 1970s, although she admits cheerfully, "I haven't written one line yet." The lure of that period, she says, was that "it was one of those rare times when black and white actually sat down with one another, actually acknowledged one another, and communicated with one another.
"You hear a lot of stuff about the late '60s and the '70s, and about how it was such a frivolous time and all that," she continues emphatically. "But that's people speaking now.
People may want to forget those times or dismiss them, but I can't."
It's not surprising. As in "Beloved," as in "Jazz," Toni Morrison is fierce in her resolve to remind Americans of what might be distasteful or easily forgotten -- to keep their eyes on the page no matter what the words might say.
"The United States wants to erase slavery, to pretend it was something other than what it was, or didn't exist in quite the fashion that it did," she says, a note of sadness mixing with her anger. "And by not dealing with it, it has a distorted life beyond what it has. A historian was telling me yesterday, 'Once you excise the word "slavery" from history, and begin to call the slaves workers, it all changes. You end up denying not just its existence, but its complicity.
"In this country, there is this desperation to be innocent. We're very serious about keeping innocence about slavery here."
THE MORRISON FILE
Born: Lorain, Ohio, Feb. 18, 1931.
Education: Graduated from Howard University, 1953; M.A. in English from Cornell University, 1955.
Current home: Rockland County, N.Y., and Princeton, N.J.
the lure of the city: "I wanted 'Jazz' to remind the reader of it, as it reminded me -- the beauty and the innocence and the
On being poor and black: "In my father's day, you could be a poor person and be a man, too. Now, if you don't have money, you're an infant. And they are closing the door on so many frustrated young blacks and pretending they are monster children."
On writing: "When I began, I just wanted to get the words out onto the page. Now, I'm much more demanding because I know more. So the writing is much harder."