Songs in praise of New York City were once a staple of Tin Pan Alley, but not since Kander and Ebb’s 1977 hit, ”New York, New York,” has there been a great new unofficial anthem. Novelists also used to vie for the honor of celebrating the Great American Urban Magnet, though with novelists it was usually a love- hate relationship until sometime around 1964, with Last Exit to Brooklyn , when hate began to gain a monopoly. But here at last is Toni Morrison’s Jazz, a novel that is one long, hyperlyrical love song to the state ! of mind she calls ”the City.”
Morrison’s particular beat is Harlem, circa 1926, which she pictures as an almost utopian haven for ”the wave of black people running from [the] want and violence” of the hinterlands. There, ”even if the room they rented was smaller than the heifer’s stall and darker than a morning privy, they stayed to look at their number, hear themselves in an audience, feel themselves moving down the street among hundreds of others who moved the way they did, and who, when they spoke, regardless of the accent, treated language like the same intricate, malleable toy designed for their play.” Even more than in her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel, Beloved, Morrison plays with language with the flair of a virtuoso. Jazz isn’t called Jazz because it’s about jazz musicians, but because its prose is the verbal equivalent — long, looping improvisations full of recognizable blues melodies on the subjects of love, death, jealous rage, the serenity of reconciliation — that never go quite where you think they’re going. The story flows along so freely that no one, not even the author herself, can second-guess how it will end. The springboard for Morrison’s music is the murder by a 50-year-old cosmetics salesman, Joe Trace, of his teenage mistress, Dorcas. His wife, Violet, attacks the girl’s corpse at her funeral and afterwards is obsessed with finding out everything she can about her. This much we learn in the first pages, and all that follows is an investigation of the roots of Joe’s, Violet’s, and Dorcas’ behavior, an inquiry that takes Morrison back to the antebellum South.
To my ear the passages back in Vesper County lack the textured richness of Morrison’s portraits of life in jazz-era Harlem — or the fierceness of her treatment of the slave states in Beloved. But these chapters make up only a short parenthesis toward the end of what is otherwise a wholly satisfying novel. One of its major satisfactions is its chess-masterly cleverness in playing the literary game called Point of View, a game that in Jazz is not at all a trivial pursuit. Morrison has a keen, analytical awareness of where a ”voice” is coming from, and the significance that the sourcing of a writer’s voice can have. Witness her simultaneously published essay Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press), a study of how tricky even the simplest-seeming writer can be; she’s that tricky herself.
So many novelists, both black and white, begin strong and then somehow slack off. Toni Morrison began strong and has moved from strength to strength until she has reached the distinction of being beyond comparison. Someday, I’m sure, her name will appear on the spine of a Library of America edition, alongside the works of Richard Wright and Flannery O’Connor. Meanwhile we can enjoy her latest masterpiece in its first edition. A