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From Barnes & NobleThe Measure of a Life: Toni Morrison
"I'm not trying to cast blame," explained author Toni Morrison in a recent interview about her racially revisionist literature. "I'm just trying to look at something without blinking." That is certainly an apt description of her approach to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved: In it she has focused her steady gaze on a dreadful episode in American history -- slavery and its aftermath -- and the result is a spellbinding masterpiece of both exquisite beauty and pain. Set shortly after the Civil War in rural Ohio, the story revolves around Sethe, a runaway slave literally haunted by the legacy of her past -- a past that she tries desperately to repress, but one that the supernatural forces in her house won't let her forget. Her home is "spiteful...full of baby's venom," and reverberates with the angry rumblings of her dead baby daughter. Eerie red light, rattling furniture, and overturned dishes are commonplace. Sethe's love for this child was so deep that it proved deadly: She murdered the girl rather than see her returned to a life of slavery. Terrorized by the ghost, Sethe's sons have run off; her treasured mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, has died; and she lives in virtual isolation with her adolescent daughter, Denver. When Paul D. -- an ex-slave from the Sweet Home plantation where Sethe was held in bondage -- shows up on her doorstep, Sethe's life changes abruptly. Not only must she endure a surge of memories, but the previously incorporeal ghost suddenly manifests itself in the form of a strange but seductive young woman named Beloved.
Beloved is but one of many critically acclaimed works by the prolific Morrison. Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, Morrison read ravenously as a child and went on to earn an English degree from Howard and a master's from Cornell University. She has held teaching positions at countless colleges -- Yale University, Bard College, and Rutgers among them. Before devoting herself fully to her own fiction, she worked for 20 years as a senior editor at Random House. Since 1989, she has held a university chair in humanities at Princeton University, and has won numerous awards, most notably the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. As the eighth woman and the first African American to have received the award, she is now one of the most respected figures in American letters.
A vocal force in the once-silenced community of African-American women, Morrison is devoted to the potency and potential of language. "We die," she has said. "That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives." If language is indeed the measure of our lives, then she has lived one of unparalleled eloquence. For her prose is unquestionably dazzling. Like an alchemist transforming dross to gold, Morrison turns words into living, breathing, shimmering entities, into pulsating colors, vibrant sounds, pungent smells. So vivid is Beloved's fictional world -- the white staircase in Sethe's house, Denver's boxwood hiding place -- that the reader becomes a part of it. And so acutely are the characters' emotions drawn -- Beloved's bottomless rage, Baby Suggs's bone-tired exhaustion -- that we identify with each of them. Whether writing in narrative form or indulging in occasional poetic riffs, Morrison taps into universal human dilemmas and reaches us at the deepest level.
This is not to say that her prose is easy. Her convoluted narrative style is often compared with that of fellow Nobel laureate William Faulkner. In Beloved, neither plot nor time is linear. The past overlaps the present; memory -- or "rememory," as she calls it -- bleeds into every scene. To maintain suspense, Morrison withholds information, but drops clues on every page -- tantalizing hints of Sethe's crime or Beloved's identity. The details accumulate until you find yourself suddenly gasping with comprehension, and then wildly rifling back through the pages to reread earlier scenes that only now make sense.
Readers intimidated by such complexity might be tempted to skip the book and head straight for the new movie adaptation, which producer Oprah Winfrey and director Jonathan Demme have handled with grace and dexterity. Their lushly photographed film stays faithful to the book's lyricism, dialogue, and memory-driven structure. The casting is ideal: Danny Glover makes an endearing Paul D., and Oprah Winfrey plays Sethe with just the right iron-eyed determination. Although Thandie Newton's portrayal of Beloved is at times over the top -- veering into Exorcist territory -- the uninhibited force she brings to the role is riveting.
And yet, no film adaptation -- not even one as artistic and insightful as Demme's -- can match the power of Morrison's novel. The movie shares the book's slowly unraveling mystery and its unflinching depictions of slavery, but it loses much, simply due to its medium. Three hours are not nearly enough to cover the array or depth of Morrison's characters. We only skim the surface of Denver, Baby Suggs, Paul D., and others. We never learn the intimate details of their pasts. Nor do we hear their internal dialogue -- so essential in a novel of ever-shifting perspectives. Plenty of vital characters don't appear at all. And the importance of the African-American community -- whose support, or lack thereof, plays such a huge role in all of Morrison's books -- is diminished in the film.
Though Beloved is Morrison's undisputed masterpiece, all her books are remarkable. Each bears her trademark touches: elegant prose, fantastical occurrences, striking characters, and racial tension. Her first and perhaps most accessible novel is the short and searing The Bluest Eye, in which a girl is driven mad by her hunger for an unattainable symbol of white beauty -- blue eyes. Her second novel, Sula, is an oft-overlooked gem, a portrait of female friendship between a conformist and a rebel. Song of Solomon, winner of the 1977 National Book Critics Award, distinguishes itself from her other works for its straightforward plot flow and its male protagonist, who must embrace his heritage in order to mature. Although Tar Baby, with its Caribbean setting and its privileged characters -- a pampered black model and a rich white couple among them -- is sometimes considered Morrison's most commercial book, it is as provocative and sumptuously rendered as the rest. Her most challenging books are her most recent ones: a trilogy of novels (each with a different cast of characters) intended as a retelling of the black experience in America from slavery to the present day. Jazz, the second in the trilogy after Beloved, evokes a jealous love triangle in early black Harlem, in a literary style as dizzy and ingenious as a Coltrane improvisation. And in Paradise, the third and most controversial of the series, a posse of men from an all-black town descends upon a convent of wayward women to murder the inhabitants. Published earlier this year, Paradise is a complex work that has received plenty of praise, but also substantial criticism. In addition to her seven novels, Morrison has written a play, "Dreaming Emmett," and a book of essays entitled Playing in the Dark.
"My job," she says, "is to make sure whatever journey I invite a reader to, I am there to accompany them, to offer a palm to hold." And it is our job, as readers, to take that hand and to dive fearlessly into the fictional worlds she has created. To decline Morrison's invitation would be to deprive ourselves of some of the most sublime, transformative literature of our time.