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, led by no less persuasive a cheerleader than Oprah Winfrey. From her earliest works, The Bluest Eye and Sula, through her glory tunes Song of Solomon and Beloved, and on through her 1992 urban riff Jazz, Morrison has swung lyrical and fierce. Over and over, she returns to her lifelong exploration of legacies: slavery in America, sexism, violence. (No neurasthenic souls here, no wan yuppies drooping from overwatering and the topsoil of capitalism.) Adding her voice to a powerful 20th-century cry, her slogan is Never again!
I lay this drumroll on loud because Paradise (proudly promoted as Morrison’s First Novel Since Her Nobel, and already optioned by Winfrey for TV or movie development) covers a lot of the writer’s regular, and regularly stirring, material. But something in the heavily stylized writing and complicated structure of the book dulls its power. And even more disconcerting, something in the setup — the unrelenting struggle of good, victimized women hurting at the hands of narrow-minded, victimizing men, the unsubtle sermons about the dangers of black folks repeating white folks’ worst ways — begins to feel too easy, almost too reflexive.
Paradise opens with death, described in language that might have come out of the original ”Song of Solomon,” so garlanded is it with pretty words. In the small, all-black Oklahoma town of Ruby in 1976 (located ”way out in the middle of nowhere”), a group of men storms a former convent on the outskirts of town and murders the odds-and-ends gaggle of women who had, over the years, found refuge there. Morrison describes two women running hopelessly to escape like this: ”Bodacious black Eves unredeemed by Mary, they are like panicked does leaping toward a sun that has finished burning off the mist and now pours its holy oil over the hides of game.” This, Morrison makes clear, is paradise lost. It’s the culmination of every wrong step a black community can take when it’s bent on self-destruction.
Working backward from that fevered beginning (a scene setter, for all its lacy language, of great energy), the author lays out the tale of Ruby, the convent, the sacred Oven (always capitalized, like a holy place) at the center of the community, and the women now dead. Connie — as in Consolata — was once a nun. Mavis ran away from her abusive husband and left behind her children, too, convinced that, spurred by their father, they were trying to kill her. Provocative Gigi hopped off a bus from San Francisco and threatened all the men in town with her outsize sexuality. (”Suppose her navel had not peeked over the waist of her jeans or her breasts had just hushed, hushed for a few seconds till they could figure out how to act….”) Et cetera.
None of the men, apparently, can figure out how to act in paradise. Twisted by ignorance, by pride, and even by religion as Morrison sets them to be, how could they? The Oven itself becomes a burden. Home to life-affirming bread baking, of course, but also associated in our minds with Holocaust-scale destruction, it beckons and glowers and makes for added guilt. Even the blurred inscription in its mouth makes the residents edgy. (Should it read ”Beware the Furrow of His Brow,” men argue, or ”Be the Furrow of His Brow”?)
Preachers hold forth a lot in Paradise. Actually, everyone holds forth a lot, speaking lessons and parables. And the creator of this twisted Eden can’t resist a final homily. ”Whether they be the first or the last,” she writes of the murderers, ”representing the oldest black families or the newest, the best of the tradition or the most pathetic, they had ended up betraying it all….Unbridled by Scripture, deafened by the roar of its own history, 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.