Toni Morrison’s magisterial grasp of the big stuff — race, motherhood, community, the tenacious hook the past keeps on the present — won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, the Nobel Prize in 1993, and a throng of fans. I lay this drumroll on loud because ”Paradise” covers a lot of the writer’s regular, and regularly stirring, material. But something in the book?s heavily stylized writing and complicated structure dulls its power. And even more disconcerting, something in the set-up — the unrelenting struggle of good, victimized women hurting at the hands of victimizing men, the unsubtle sermons about the dangers of black folks repeating white folks? worst ways — begins to feel too easy.
”Paradise” opens with death: In the small, black Oklahoma town of Ruby in the 1970s, a group of men storms a former convent and murders the women who had, over the years, found refuge there. Working backward from a fevered opening chapter, the author lays out the story of the town, and the residents now dead. Everyone holds forth a lot, speaking lessons and parables. ”Deafened by the roar of its own history,” Morrison writes, ”Ruby… was an unnecessary failure.” ”Paradise,” by one of the leaders of America?s contemporary literary tradition, is no failure. But it?s no Eden for Morrison lovers, either.