Last month while accepting a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle, Toni Morrison noted that back in 1970 when she published her debut novel, “The Bluest Eye,” “the reception was slight, indifferent.”
Forty-five years and one Nobel Prize later, the reception has been entirely redecorated. Her 1987 classic, “Beloved,” is justly inscribed in the literary history of the 20th century; her name is regularly invoked along with Faulkner and Ellison. Her new novel, “God Help the Child,” is thundering off the press with 200,000 copies.
Now 84, when no one would blame her for concentrating on ovations and grandchildren, Morrison shows no signs of slowing her steady, productive pace. Her last three novels have been slim but formally daring and thematically ambitious. Because her latest work offers curious reflections of where she began in “The Bluest Eye,” it’s tempting to read “God Help the Child” as a capstone of her jeweled career. Once again, we have a young woman whose life is overdetermined by the pigment of her skin in a culture torn with sexual violence.
But unfortunately, “God Help the Child” carries only a faint echo of that earlier novel’s power. Moving chapter by chapter through different narrators, the story revolves around a successful cosmetics designer who calls herself Bride. She drives a “beautiful Jaguar” and wears only expensive white clothes. As an adult, she’s distractingly gorgeous, but when she was a child born in the 1990s, her mother regarded her “midnight black” skin as shockingly ugly: “She was so black she scared me,” Mom says in the opening soliloquy. “I wished she hadn’t been born with that terrible color. I even thought of giving her away to an orphanage someplace.” In a line too close to a classic “Seinfeld” episode, when she went out with the baby carriage, “friends or strangers would lean down and peek in to say something nice and then give a start or jump back.” Bride’s father refuses to hold her and then abandons them both. “Her color is a cross she will always carry,” her mother concludes with a deadening lack of subtlety. “But it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not.”
Agreed. The fault here is Morrison’s. She leaves these people no interior life, a problem that grows more pronounced as the novel rolls along from trauma to trauma, throwing off wisdom like Mardi Gras bling. While attempting to create a kind of fable about the lingering effects of maternal neglect and racial self-hatred, Morrison ends up instead with characters who keep phasing between skimpy realism and overwrought fantasy.
That instability is most severe at the novel’s core. We meet Bride just after her lover, Booker, has peremptorily rejected her: “You not the woman I want,” a jarring bit of Ebonics from a man who studied economics in graduate school. “I don’t want to think about him now. Or how empty, how trivial and lifeless everything seems now,” Bride says. “I have to stop reliving our lovemaking. I have to forget how new it felt every single time, both fresh and somehow eternal.” If thoughts like that strike you as both fresh and somehow eternal, you’re in luck: There are a lot of them here.
The shock of Bride’s heartbreak causes her to lose her pubic hair. Soon her earring holes close up, her period stops and then her breasts shrink. In the semi-magical worlds Morrison has created before, such surreal touches seem both evocative and weirdly natural, but in the flat language of this novel, they’re clunky symbols, needlessly explained: “She was changing back into a little black girl.” Ah.
It doesn’t help that Bride and Booker’s romantic travails — which are not particularly compelling — are predicated on much more dramatic stories of pedophilia and murder in their pasts. As a second-grader, Bride was a material witness to a notorious sex crime, which resulted in the long imprisonment of an innocent woman. Booker, for his part, lost a beloved brother to a serial killer. These sensational horrors continue to haunt and disrupt their lives until an old woman named Queen explains all and then, inevitably, dies after a cleansing fire. (Spike Lee once complained about the “magical, mystical Negro” who exists in pop culture only to lead white folks to enlightenment. It turns out that stock figure is no more satisfying when forced to enlighten black folks.)
In a longer story, Morrison might have given these events the ground they need to blossom naturally. As is, her tale seems littered with Post-It Notes that say, “Insert Emotional Impact Here.” And yet other parts of the novel serve only as chatty filler. Bride’s ambitious young colleague at the You, Girl cosmetic company, for instance, offers nothing we don’t already know. “I might as well be talking to myself,” she says. “I’ll take care of everything at work. Bride will be on sick leave for a long time, and somebody has to take on her responsibilities. And who knows how that might turn out?” In fact, it’s challenging to imagine a reader who does not know how that might turn out.
But then, a reprieve: Right in the middle of the novel comes a chapter in Morrison’s own incomparable voice. It’s essentially a short story about Booker, a graduate student still clutching his boyhood grief, still searching for some way to comprehend “how money shaped every single oppression in the world and created all the empires, nations, colonies, with God and His enemies employed to reap, then veil, the riches.” Morrison moves fluidly through his upbringing in a bookish family. She alights briefly on the ghastly crime that poisoned his life, and she follows him on the wandering path that led to Bride.
This interlude is surprising, emotionally complex and elliptical without being sketchy. It’s everything, in other words, the rest of this novel should be.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
GOD HELP THE CHILD
By Toni Morrison
Knopf. 178 pp. $24.95