Sunday, November 30, 2008

Toni Morrison/A MERCY

In 1690, a farmer dies of pox. He is survived by the English wife he ordered by mail and by their three servant/slaves: a Native American woman, a white woman, and a black teenage girl. In a brief and characteristically sensual narrative, Toni Morrison creates thumbnail sketches of eight lives brought together in infant America, all products of different desperations. Their interactions are a reimagining of American history at a peculiar formative moment, when slavery and race still had broad definitions, and when social advantages were random and fluid.

I purchased my copy of this book at a reading during which Toni Morrison was asked, "When do your readers disappoint you?" Her answer to this uncomfortable question: "When they expect a quick and happy ending." There should be, she went on, no need for a clean ending. "I like ambiguity and ambivalence in the mind of the reader after the last page." Furthermore, fiction should be "not knowledge but imagination and insight."*

All these things put forth as caveats, I want to treat this review as I would have if I hadn't heard her say those things. This novel is so rich in provocative themes that each section had me itching to know more, more about each character's situation, back story, and character. The chapters are lush and impressionistic, full of Morrison's trademark language, and the characters (from the short glimpses we get of them) are very interesting personalities.

But for the cast of characters and the issues tackled--settlement, slavery, religion, indentured servitude, the elimination of the Native Americans, rape, race, the systematic oppression of females, child loss, to name some--the book was short. Frustratingly, the story lines introduced in the short chapters weren't revisited or explored. As it is, the thumbnail sketches of the characters were a little too thin to to satisfy, and, honestly, a little bit stagnant. In this way, it reminded me of Gentlemen of the Road--a fascinating topic in the hands of a master writer that fails to hit the spot because it is too short and underdeveloped.

I appear to be in the minority on this book, since every review I've read has been nothing short of worshipful. I would still absolutely recommend A Mercy, because it is a tantalizing read. I hope that it will spawn interest in that period of American history and perhaps inspire other period fictions for me to read down the line.

*NYPL, 11/12/2008


sandralambert said...

"Frustratingly, the story lines introduced in the short chapters weren't revisited or explored. As it is, the thumbnail sketches of the characters were a little too thin to to satisfy...

But, but, but. I think when you read fiction set in the past, it's like reading a novel set in a culture unfamiliar to you - you have let go of knowing everything. Too much would have to be explained. I think Morrison did her job by more than sketching in the "macro" of the culture and then taking us into the "micro" - the hearts of her characters.

moonrat said...

Thanks for chiming in, Sandra. Like I said, I know I must be in a minority on this. And you're right, there's no way to know everything (an intersting side conversation could be had re: why we always want fiction to be "well researched" these days... isn't it just fiction??)

But certain moments and characters still felt underdeveloped to me. In particular (since you've read the book), I was frustrated by Sorrow's presence, her thinness, and the melodrama about her history and origins. I really didn't understand her as a person or a character at all, and I didn't entirely understand her function in the novel except, maybe, as an example that there were white slaves.

Also, I was frustrated by Lina, who I thought could have been compelling and interesting, but who instead ended up filling a number of stereotypes you always see written about Native American characters without really adding much to them. Again, with the barely-scratched itch--it seemed to me like there was an open wound story to be told about the man/lover who had mistreated her when she was 14 and before she ended up with the Vaarks, but instead I only have a vague, impressionistic understanding of her. Rar, barely scratched itches.

I felt like there were simply SO many stories to tell, and that only pieces of them had been crammed into a very thin volume.

sandralambert said...

Okay, you are right about Sorrow. She sprung to life for me at the end, but not before. I've been doing writing research on the 1918 flu and how people reacted to and lived past such mass devastation - mostly their lives were muted and the suffering unspoken - like Lina.

threepenny said...

I didn't think the novel was very successful. What bothered me was that the characters' backstory seemed forced onto the page, at the expense of living, breathing characters. Because their histories were meant to be a protest against servitude, making them serve as exemplars seemed, well, like another kind of servitude. There was a lot to admire in the book, but the overbearing narrator piece was a bit of a dealbreaker for me. The moments of grief and outrage and empathy didn't rival those of "Beloved."

moonrat said...

thanks, threepenny. i didn't put my finger on that earlier but i think i'm (for the most part) inclined to agree with you.

we're going to do a book discussion on Ed Ass on 1/1/09--i hope you'll be able to come. it would be nice to have a variety of perspectives.

threepenny said...

Moonrat, thanks for checking out my blog and for the invite to discuss "A Mercy" with you all next month. If I am at my computer that day, I will be sure to stop by. Happy holidays!