18 November 2008
First three chapters/sections – Ruby, Mavis, Grace
I’m not sure where I am with it yet. Of course, that might be how Morrison wants me to feel: I appear to tick at least one of the wrong boxes for her, if I can be defensive for a moment, being male. At least I’m not American, but I can’t imagine that being much of a defence in the Paradise scheme of things: in the novel so far there’s a fierce undertow of feeling about the awful things that men do to women. I was also going to say that there’s a similar undertow relating to white oppression – but Toni Morrison has no problem with turning an icy stare on the routine oppression by one section of African-American society on another.
In Ruby the nasty men are war veterans ridding their town of a troublesome women’s commune, if that‘s what it is, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma. They are African-American – not that Morrison tells us at first – proud of their own freed-slave heritage and unable to come to terms with a different way of doing things. At least, I think that’s what’s happening. Whatever, it turns them into killers – or allows them to approach the occupants of the ‘convent’ as they are used to approaching the Jap enemy. (Or do I mean the Viet Cong? I get a bit lost sometimes about where we are exactly in the 20th Century.) Morrison imagines us inside their different male consciousnesses, from the gung-ho to the naïve and terrified. We don’t know who the women are and why they need to be got rid of – but nor do we know who these men are and how it’s come to this. Somehow the first few pages – which I read before, years ago, and didn’t return to – become symbolic of what seems to be at the root of male oppression of women in the Morrison universe: a fatal combination of fear, misunderstanding and, most significantly, power.
There’s a separate thread in Ruby, to do with a failed attempt to establish an African-American community in the US. The rhetoric used by the community to tell its own story – which they do, endlessly – is biblical, and the prejudice the men feel about the women contains a highly moralistic element of disapproval of – of what? – otherness. The fact that the building used by the commune was once a convent – and before that a rich crook’s hideaway – adds layers of pseudo-religious force to the rumours that fuel the men’s actions. Morrison doesn’t use the word, but they are crusaders ridding the world of something evil. (I’ll have to re-read the relevant bits to remind myself of who exactly Ruby is.)
If Ruby is epic, which I suppose is what Morrison is after, Mavis is domestic. Her story, as described in the first few pages, is only complicated in the way Morrison tells it: a newspaper interviewer and photographer are looking for a way in, while Mavis puts up with the hateful underhand bullying of her eldest daughter, pinching her, unseen but hard enough to cause bruises. Mavis, we find out, has accidentally killed her baby twin daughters by leaving them too long in the car. The story’s a gift for the local tabloids – but that’s not why, one night some time after the interview, Mavis gets in the car and drives. She does it to escape not from the publicity but from domestic violence and serial pregnancy. At the centre of that, using Mavis’s daughters as henchmen, is… well, guess. He’s called Frank and he’s a monster. He’s spent all their money on a Cadillac, spends his nights drinking and uses Mavis exactly as you’d expect him to.
Mavis doesn’t mean to drive across America, but that’s what she does, And she ends up at the former convent. We’re in the late 60s, and things are… strange. One of the two women living there ekes a living from produce. The other one, ’Mother’, is at death’s door in one of the bedrooms. Fair enough. But Morrison lets us know straight away that this is where Mavis will be staying for at least two years. It might be a strange place, centred on Connie’s own notions of right behaviour, but it’s safe and it’s a long way from Frank. And all the other Franks out there, I suppose.
The other thread in this section is the town’s reaction to some under-age goings on. KD, a young war veteran (I think – I told you I get confused) has done something with a 15-year-old girl and the local elders step in to pacify the girl’s father. KD apologises, the father seems satisfied, and… that’s all right then. The subject on the card is Women and paternalism, it seems.
Grace starts in the town, with Toni Morrison imagining herself inside the heads and other private places of the local men and boys as they watch Gigi sashaying down the street after she’s got off the bus. She’s sex on legs, particularly the breasts and cleavage that Morrison has chosen to endow her with, and… what’s a poor boy to do? KD has some encounter with her, but she’s looking for something else: a rock formation that some guy has told her looks exactly like a couple making love. KD had talked to the under-age girl about this so, for some reason I haven’t worked out, it’s already in our minds. Anyway, it seems the subject on this chapter’s card is s-e-x. Like, when we get some historical background on the convent/commune, it turns out to have been built for orgies,
Gigi – who is the Grace of the chapter title – ends up there, sunbathing naked when Mavis arrives back from a shopping trip that took over a week. She’s been at the place for three years now, and she’s been away to get something for Mother – but Mother died while Mavis was away. So it goes. Mavis is shocked by Gigi, and it eventually comes to blows. It had seemed likely that the girl would go – she went for a drive with KD, who wants to impress her – but here she is. Girls might just want to have fun, but there are other things they need as well in Morrisonland.
Seneca and the first half of Divine
Nearly half-way through, and it doesn’t get any easier. The chronology is just about the most impenetrably fractured I can ever remember – and it goes with the other splinterings of the narrative: we’re endlessly flitting to and fro between the convent and the town of Ruby, among different members of various families, among their individual and/or shared memories. And and and. It’s like finding a videotape of a soap opera you’ve never watched, cut up and spliced together in an order that only occasionally makes sense…. Who are these people?
First, though, I should clear up a couple of things. The town is called Ruby, and it’s the second of the towns set up by the freed slaves. (The first was Haven, and I can’t remember why they upped sticks and moved, although it might have been to do with prejudice from other, more settled, lighter-coloured African-Americans near there.) And the first chapter, the attack on the convent, is an end-point not a starting point: all the rest is flashback. Maybe this accounts for the difficulty I had in deciding which war the men had come back from: In Ruby it’s Vietnam; subsequently – as in the tragedy of Soane’s sons – the recent conflict referred to is WW2. So it’s simple, yeh? Well no, obviously not. But, essentially, Ruby shows the consequences of a growing suspicion of the women in the convent; the rest of the novel (presumably) describes how such suspicion arises from the day-by-day unravelling of the lives of ordinary women put through intolerable stress. Usually by men.
Meanwhile, or in the spaces between the bits describing the women‘s lives, Morrison lets the story of the town emerge. And whatever happens in the town, there’s always a back story. Which emerges piecemeal, obviously, in the spaces between the story of whatever’s happening in the here and now – often, though not always, in the memories of individual characters. And I’ve realised why I’ve given up on the book for a while: it just takes too much bloody effort to keep a handle on what, after all, is only a story. It doesn’t have to be this hard.
Before I finish I should jot down a few of the threads. The problems with the young people of the town continue – i.e. they don’t behave in ways that the God-fearing, ultra-conservative older generation consider acceptable. Graffiti appears on the iconic brick oven which the oldies revere as a symbol of their hard-won freedoms and hard-won sense of community. A meeting takes place in which the young tread on all the toes of the older ones just by being open. There’s a lot of religiosity associated with the older ones and their reverence for the oven, so any disrespect to it is seen as somehow blasphemous. And religion intrudes at the not-quite-shotgun wedding of KD and (I think) the no-longer underage girl he got into trouble: a visiting preacher overdoes the hellfire and the usually popular local minister (actually fairly newly arrived and finding his feet) resorts to a symbolic raising of the cross which is promptly misinterpreted by everybody.
If it sounds convoluted, it is. I suppose Morrison is lamenting the way that good people get sidetracked by religion – and it joins the slowly gathering theme relating to the condemnation of the women in the convent. Morrison is at pains to describe how women arrive by accident, but stay for the female solidarity that doesn’t make the patriarchal judgments she presents elsewhere in the novel. And that theme goes with the other, established as long ago as the second chapter: the crapness of men. In Seneca one of the key problems (although not the only one – her life is like one of those Halle Berry movies in which she struggles) is the petty crook she’s fastened to. He’s drawn from the same shit-pile as Mavis’s not-quite husband and, reader, we’re all glad she’s out of it.
I’m giving it up for a while. ’ll get back to you when I start reading it again.
5 February 2009
Second half of Divine…
…the chapter I started over two months ago. It started with the contentious wedding in Ruby and, as long as we’re in the town, everyone carries on being contentious. Touchy. Judgmental. The women from the convent invite themselves over to the party, and the town thinks, Whores. After they’ve gone – after they’ve been told to leave – the main business of the town can carry on: everybody judging everybody else. The (relatively) new reverend worries: it’s like no black community he’s ever been in and, once the convent women have left, they can all tut-tut about the young people again.
There’s a new character at the convent, Pallas (daughter of Divine). Her story is so awful she’s not even able to tell it yet. No doubt it’ll stand next to Mavis’s story, and Seneca’s: the crapness of men. Maybe her story will be even worse than theirs. But the convent section of the chapter lets Morrison remind us of the novel’s other strange, inward-looking community. There’s a cat-fight on the way home (Gigi and Mavis, since you ask): Morrison, I guess, showing us she’s not in the business of idealising anyone. But soon there’s Seneca looking after Pallas, Connie comforting her and mothering her, Mavis feeding them all. Only Gigi sours it with her terminal cynicism. She was the one who started the fight earlier, the one who had a thing for KD in the town (it was mutual), the one who’s so self-centred she’ll – surely? – bring trouble to them all.
At last. Half-way through the novel, Morrison has decided to cut us some slack. We get half a chapter in which Patricia, the daughter of a black father and white mother (unprecedented in this community, and never repeated), pieces together Ruby’s interlocking family trees. It’s a tortuous business for her and, as readers, we slide over most of the half-known names. But several things are clarified. The key point is what she calls 8-rock: the racial purity of the people of Ruby going back eight generations. It is, she realises, totemic. During the second half of the chapter, as she watches Ruby’s annual version of the school’s Nativity play, she realises that the number of Mary-and-Josephs on stage, which used to be nine, then eight, is down to seven. She decides, and nothing Morrison says makes us doubt her, that a family gets tacitly struck off any time there’s a marriage to anyone who isn’t blue-black. Woah.
At the play, we’re following the reverend’s point of view. He’s not happy, feels excluded by the way Ruby closes in on itself. He’s an outsider like Patricia and, like her, he gets polite stonewalling whenever he asks anything interesting. He wants to leave…. But before the chapter ends we’re back with Patricia – she’s been talking to him throughout – and she comes to realise something. It’s not only about the way the lighter-skinned blacks never helped the original wanderers – although they are represented by the masked inn-keepers in the play, It’s about the way any racial impurity – what she comes to think of as a stain – always come in through women. It might be the men doing the marrying, but it’s the women who dilute the 8-rock stock.
…which is her real name, apparently. More explanations, as Morrison (guiltily? I doubt it) fills in some more of the gaps, this time about the convent. She goes through all the women’s stories one by one, telling us how the damage manifests itself. Connie: near-alcoholism and an intolerance amounting to rage at the ‘babygirl’ behaviour of the younger generation – which is a theme in the Ruby chapters as well, of course…. Mavis: hyper-real dreams of bringing up her dead twins, who age realistically. Seneca: self-harm in the form of cutting – beautifully, seductively described. Gigi: can’t remember, but I bet it’s not good. Pallas: an inability to cope with her own pregnancy – and an inability, still, to talk about whatever happened….
Something else: we find out about Connie finding love and gratifying sex late in life (following serial abuse and rape before her rescue – at the age of nine – by the nun who became ‘Mother’). And we also find out about the routine caring of women. We found out in the previous chapter how it was women who insisted on rescuing some children they found in impossible straits en route to Haven (or Ruby). And Sister Mary Magna, aka Mother, was another rescuer. As for Connie… women have just fallen into her lap – but that‘s not all. She has a power that Lone recognises (she was one of the rescued babies, now grown up): she can heal. No really – and we’re in the routine magic region of Morrison-land we first encountered in Beloved. Morrison describes the power lovingly: she wants us to take it seriously, as one of the things that sets women apart from men.
There’s other stuff – it’s a long chapter – including the way KD’s wife, before she was his wife, came to the convent pregnant – and determined not to have the baby. The description of her efforts to kill it are as vividly plain-speaking as the stuff about Connie’s power – the desperation of women in this particular plight, and another thing to set them apart from men. And near the end of the chapter, Connie/Consolata comes out of her alcoholic stupor. She’s going to make the younger women clean up, and she’s going to make them come to terms with what’s happened to them. Using a different power – or the same power attached to different psychic machinery – she draws round their bodies on the cellar floors. The encircled spaces become something real for the women, somewhere to place all the – what? – pain, struggle, damage. And the scene is starting to be set for the terror we know is coming.
It’s been one of the most powerful chapters in the book, and I wondered why Morrison made us wait so long before she began to speak plainly. The first half of the novel, in retrospect, is a heap of off-cuts we can’t make easy sense of. Only by the time we get to this point, about three-quarters of the way through, has Morrison (and I apologise for this in advance) sewn some of them into some kind of pattern. Patchwork, y’know, like what women make.
Whoa. It’s happened: the attack on the convent. This chapter starts before it, and ends next morning when the undertaker – y’know, whatsisname, we met him before – goes to collect the two bodies we know about and the three everyone assumes are lying dead in the field. And guess what? He can’t find any of the bodies. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Like all the recent chapters (and, perhaps, every chapter in the book) this one starts from one woman’s point of view and then widens out. Lone is an archetype, one of the mythic feminist heroines – a Wise Woman. To be less charitable, I find her a bit of a lazy stereotype, but then I would, wouldn‘t I? She’s the midwife, the healer. Obviously. And she’s out gathering mandrake and other roots. (What else would she be doing?) She overhears the men we met in Chapter 1 planning the attack. Again, Morrison makes clear various things that, er, hadn’t been – particularly the self-serving motives that men dress up as righteousness. Again, it’s a bit obvious: I didn’t feel we needed it on a plate like this. But hey.
And then the real business of the chapter begins. Morrison drops Lone’s point of view, drops the past tense – and gives us a visceral late-20th Century-style description of the violence in the convent. It’s compelling stuff. As we know from the first chapter, ‘the white girl’ cops it. Not that we know who the white girl is, of course: Morrison has been careful not to indicate any of the women’s ethnicities. And the events of the first chapter are re-told, but not from the men’s points of view this time. Throughout, whenever we do get the men’s views, they’re grotesque. The cat-fight next to the car in the Divine chapter, and a traumatised woman being consoled, is presented as internecine lesbian conflict over one another’s affections…. And by the end, of course, we hate all men.
The cavalry, gathered by Lone from the families who haven’t begun to distrust her mysterious witchy ways, arrive too late. Connie’s dead, three others have fallen in the field, presumed shot, several of the men have received injuries from skillets and whatever else was at hand…. What next? There’s a short two-part chapter left, and I don’t bloody know. The respectable families on the scene are appalled – but does the disappearance of all the bodies suggest a cover-up? Or were there survivors of the holocaust after all, who have taken the bodies away? Mavis’s Cadillac has gone, so that’s what I’m betting on – but I’m nearly always wrong.
The final chapter…
…part 1 of which is set in Ruby, some months later, and part 2 of which isn’t. Both parts, in their different ways, feel like 19th Century novels. In Ruby, the major players come to terms with what happened, including some near-Biblical stuff involving Deacon going through some high-powered moral wrestling with what his brother did. (Did I mention that it was Deek’s brother who shot Connie? I know I didn’t mention that Deek was Connie’s lover.) His penance involves going barefoot to a priest, and telling an archetypal ancestral story about brothers…. Obviously, Morrison isn’t going to let up on the epic tone – but she also keeps on with the job she set herself in the last few chapters, of clarifying some of the obscure stuff that made the first half so hard to read.
The town is going to – what? – carry on. No bodies, so no investigation. But the reverend, from whose point of view the chapter begins, knows there have got to be changes. Why did the original citizens start afresh – and bring all the stale old attitudes with them? And why do they live according to almost identical hierarchies as the ones they turn their backs on? Good questions, Tone. But haven’t you been asking them for about 300 pages already? The problems are to do with men, their religions, their sex drives, their, er, crapness. Blokes, you listening? Stop being so crap.
The second section finishes off the novel’s other thread. What happened to the women? Morrison has introduced enough magic realism during the last 100 pages or so for us to accept the ambiguities she shoves in our way. Ok, I found some of the little teases a bit tiresome: the withholding of vital information ended up feeling cutesy. She comes at the women obliquely: we get short scenes, first with Gigi, then Mavis, Pallas and Seneca – but, in each case, seen by the one person in their former lives who loved them. What’s that poem? What will remain of us is love. Not revenge, not payback – despite Gigi’s combat gear. Love, love, love. (Larkin, An Arundel Tomb. The poem, I mean.)
And the ambiguities? The first is, well, are these scenes really happening? They’re described in careful, tactile detail – Mavis is enjoying a meal in a diner, for goodness’ sake – and yet… and yet there’s a hint of something other-worldly going on. Somehow, these meetings just happen – or, if they were carefully planned, Morrison deliberately leaves out the planning scenes. So how did Gigi find Whatsisname in the middle of nowhere on a prison work party? How did Mavis find her daughter? Why does Pallas just waft in to collect her shoes from home, then waft out again? It feels like the ending of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, in which the reader is offered two interpretations of the main character’s future. But in this novel the choice is only hinted at: believe in their supportive, sisterly survival if you want, but… but what? But come on. Isn’t this all just wishful thinking, a Rock-candy Mountain? Except…
Except the novel’s final sentence is about the work they have yet to do ‘down here in Paradise.’ Not revenge or blame, then. Work. And if society is to be turned around, floaty apparitions won’t be able to do it. You need real women, ones who eat and bleed and, if they’re middle class, wear nice shoes. So why does Morrison make it all so unclear? Has she become seduced by the non-male, non-scientific, non-logical suggestive possibilities of a less locked-in narrative form? Listen, she seems to be saying, this can be as real or unreal as I want. What did reality ever do for us? Us women, she means. This narrator is as omniscient, and omnipotent as any male voice. But a goddess, not a god.
The other ambiguity? It’s the one about who the white one is. We think we’ve worked it out: there were three survivors, right, and the white one was shot. So… Gigi, Mavis and Pallas all survived – so it’s Seneca who was shot? Well, Morrison tells us, no: there‘s Seneca, still cutting herself a few pages from the end. So we never find out: as Morrison has said in an interview, they aren’t colour-coded. And in a novel about blackness – in perhaps the most literal possible way – that’s quite a decision. Tricksy? Maybe. But hey.