From the Archives November 21, 2017
Bus station in Marion, OH, c.1935
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Rock bottom

A review by Jenny Uglow of Toni Morrison’s Sula, published in the TLS of December 19, 1980.

Beauty, eccentricity, bustle, laughter, sensuality, generous affection: Toni Morrison’s novels evoke such qualities only to reduce them to shadows through the bleak light of unremitting irony. In Sula, published in America in 1974 but the most recent of her books to appear in this country, as in The Bluest Eye (1970) and Song of Solomon (1978), the tightness of a black neighbourhood between the wars is lamented with what appears at first to be simple nostalgia:

They are going to raze the Time and a Half Pool Hall, where feet in long tan shoes once pointed down from chair rungs. A steel ball will knock to dust Irene’s Palace of Cosmetology, where women used to lean their heads back on sink trays and doze, while Irene lathered Nu Nile into their hair.

This was a world where any day a man “might see a dark woman in a flowered dress doing a bit of a cakewalk”. But it is also, in The Bluest Eye, a world where the only tenderness a daughter receives comes from her father just before he rapes her, or, in Song of Solomon, a world where a rejected lover is expected to take up a knife and where the weight of the past is aptly expressed by a mad aunt who carries the bones of her father around in a sack. In Sulu it is a world where the deserted Eva Peace puts her leg under a train for insurance money so as to raise her children, yet years later ends the dependence of her drug-bound son by soaking him in kerosene and setting him alight: “But I held him close first. Real close. Sweet Plum. My baby boy.”

The laughter of Morrison’s characters disguises pain, deprivation and violation. It is laughter at a series of bad, cruel jokes. The real joke in naming Sula’s neighbourhood “The Bottom”, when it perches on barren Ohio uplands is that, in many senses it really is “the bottom” after all. Nothing is what it seems; no appearance, no relationship, can be trusted to endure.

The two earlier novels, although they anticipate the complicated and wide-ranging concerns of Song of Solomon, explore in particular the process of growing up black, female and poor. Avoiding generalities, Toni Morrison concentrates on the relation between the pressures of the community, patterns established within families (especially the models provided by mother and grandmother), and the developing sense of self. The central figures in Sula are childhood friends Sula Peace and Nel Wright, who share all their experiences until, following the death of her mother and Nel’s marriage, Sula leaves. She returns ten years later, having grown to reject convention while Nel has moulded herself into respectable domesticity; their “magical” reunion is followed by long years of bitterness. Sula offends Nel by bringing about the desertion of her husband, Jude; she offends various married couples by sleeping with all the men, but “only once”; she offends family ties by putting her grandmother Eva in a nursing home. Soon she is credited with breaking legs and causing sties, and worst of all she is said to have slept with whites. Her very presence strengthens the solidarity and virtue of the folk of “The Bottom”. Ironically, when she once approaches their norms in desiring to keep her lover Ajax, the very act drives him away.

Sula expresses her disruptive power through sex, searching in every union for both knowledge of herself and contact with “the loam” of experience. In her millennial visions, she envisages breaking every sexual taboo. She is balanced as a character by another outsider, Shadrack, who breaks the other prime taboos, those surrounding death. Crazed by the First World War he tries to control, not death itself, but its unexpectedness, by instituting “National Suicide Day”. With typical Morrison irony, just as Shadrack feels his mission as a hollow one, his annual invitation to the people to cooperate with death is horribly fulfilled by the collapse of a river tunnel.

Mutability, surprise, the reversal of the bad joke, an arbitrary fate which looks like malicious planning: these, Morrison implies, are the best we can expect. Surfaces are untrustworthy, and in Sula a recurrent image is that of the river flowing peacefully over the heads of the drowned: it is the scene of the first and last of many deaths, and lends a grimly humorous weight to the singing of “Shall We Gather at the River” at each burial. Yet the ritual funeral lament is also valued, and in fact all three of Morrison’s novels are characterized by a powerful tension between a desire to recognize and even cherish the force of tradition and to erase the humiliation it passes on to new generations. All three books are set in, or look back to, the pre-Civil Rights era: all concern families in the North who have broken connections with the South—New Orleans or Alabama become metaphors for patterns of life that can never entirely be escaped.

In the picaresque Song of Solomon, the splendidly named Milkman Dead sets off for the South in search of treasure and family history. In Sula the dignity of an “abiding gentleness of spirit” born of long endurance is set against the pettiness, shoddiness and exploitative relationships which are equally part of this inheritance. The novels at once explain the power of, and give the lie to, the cult of “black is beautiful”.

We have become attuned to novels (by black male writers) which locate oppression in the conflicts experienced by blacks (usually men) trying to make it in a white world. By concentrating on the sense of violation experienced within black neighbourhoods, even within families, Toni Morrison deprives us of stock responses and creates a more demanding and uncomfortable literature. Oppression is pervasive, part of the air the characters breathe: “Plague and drought were as ‘natural’ as springtime.” Denied their desires, the men in Sula turn into drunks and dreamers, seeking consolation in the arms of their women.

This emasculation of the male by society is a peculiar feature of Toni Morrison’s novels, reflected in the names of the men—Tar Baby, Boy Boy, Plum: it is as if these men can never grow away from their mothers. The women are stronger, having a greater capacity both for pleasure and for suffering. Toni Morrison exposes their pain, suggesting it may still endure, and also suggesting, in Sula, that her heroine’s clear understanding and inability to lie about the plight of women is what renders her an outcast:

Those with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bursting with other people’s skinned dreams and bony regrets . . . . Their children were like distant but exposed wounds whose aches were no less intimate because separate from their flesh.

Sula’s is a clear vision. She is dangerous because all experience becomes food for her “tremendous curiosity”. She does not “see” but “watches”. She watches her mother burn: “I was thrilled. I wanted her to keep on jerking like that, to keep on dancing.” This mixture of excitement and calm, involvement and detachment, seems to mirror the author’s own position and explains some of the ambivalence in these cool and wittily crafted fables created out of harrowing material. The word “elegant” is often applied to Toni Morrison’s writing; it employs sophisticated narrative devices, shifting perspectives and resonant images and displays an obvious delight in the potential of language.

In their forceful depiction of lives without opportunity, without clear goals and without adequate means of self-expression, Morrison’s novels are certainly political. Yet their most chilling aspect is the way she denies the value of strategies for survival or for rebellion. In Song of Solomon we are told that vengeance, whether personal or racial, “can’t help anybody”. In Sula, more ambiguously, the passive acceptance of evil “which bordered on welcome” is condemned, but spontaneous community action is shown to be the equivalent of mass suicide. The worst illusion of all is hope;

The same hope that kept them picking beans for other farmers; kept them from finally leaving as they talked of doing; kept them knee-deep in other people’s dirt; kept them excited about other people’s wars; kept them solicitous of white people’s children; kept them convinced that some magic “government” was going to lift them up, out and away from that dirt, those beans, those wars.

All she allows is that grimness can be illuminated fleetingly by humour, generosity, or passion. But even these may be misinterpreted, or recognized too late—as Nel recognizes too late her love for Sula.

Although she writes within a recognizable American tradition Toni Morrison’s work is strikingly individual. Apart from Nella Larsen, the author of Passing and Quicksand, she appears to be the only black American woman writer to have found a British publisher. Is it too much to hope now for British editions of other powerful works by Gayl Jones (Corregidora, Eva’s Man) and Alice Walker (Meridian)? Their combined voices could shatter some old images and create many new.