Monday, November 13, 2006

Song Of Solomon

Having just finished Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon a few days ago, I thought it would be a neat place to start with this blog.

I picked up Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon having never read any of her books before. I was on vacation, in Virginia, and had just finished Richard Hughes' interesting but profoundly racist High Wind in Jamaica. I felt a need to purge the hatefulness of the novel from my brain, and someone had left their copy of Song of Solomon in the house I was staying in. It felt like more than a coincidence. It felt like the book had decided it was time for me to read it. So I did.

It is a ritual of mine to read (or at least glace at) everything in a book other than the book itself before reading it. In this case, that meant a back cover with favorable notices from critics, three pages of same on the inside, and lists of books in the back that you might like if you like Song of Solomon in four categories: Contemporary Fiction, Compelling Novels, Sizzling Reading (which I think means lots of Sexy Time) and Literary Fiction. Oddly enough, listing those categories is about the best summation of this book I can offer, as the plot is so impulsive and complicated that summarizing it is nerarly impossible.

That is, however, why I'm here, so let me give it a shot. Song of Solomon is the story of the Dead family, told largely through the eyes (via third-person limited perspective) of Macon "Milkman" Dead III, the ne'er-do-well scion of a wealthy black family in Michigan in the middle third of the twentieth century. The first incident of the book takes place just as Milkman's mother (Ruth) is about to give birth to him. And the book rapidly tells the story of Milkman Dead up until he is in his mid thirties. As Milkman searches (flails, is more like it) for a purpose in this world, he discovers the history of his family, a history he is bound and controlled by, even though he doesn't know it.

And along the way we will meet the nacent civil rights movement, instructions for making the perfect soft boiled egg, a secret order of assasins, magic realist grace notes of dead bodies and ghosts, music, music and more music, a whole lot of sex, the necessity of returning to the land, slavery, the north vs. the south, black-on-black racism, the meaning of the books title, and at least three characters trying to fly without the aid of machinery.

Ultimately what we really meet with-- "visit with" as the turn of phrase goes-- is love in all it's forms. Milkman learns love as the book goes on, starting from his own self-love (and the self-absorption that comes with it) to, eventually, love for his family, the women he's used (sexually and otherwise) and black people in general. As he learns the history he's spent his life trying to run from-- as, in fact, in the act of running from it he learns it more and more-- he meets and reckons with the powerful (and often destructive) nature of love, be it sexual, romantic, familial, platonic or what have you.

Stylistically, Toni Morrison's novel has a free jazz jam session feel. Morrison tells the story at a breakneck pace. In one paragraph she will jump a decade, and then two chapters later fill in some of what happened in between. The story skips from plot point to plot point, careening backwards and forwards in time and geography. Characters regularly launch into long monologues which are then interrupted by the narrator taking over the story. No one in the novel is exactly what they seem, and as the book fills in more details, we come to realize the weight of conversations that seemed inoccuous, and realize the true meaning behind moments that seemed at first glance overburdened with the unknown. The plot seems to have no bearings and be told almost impulsively. This continues to the very end of the novel.

I wonder, looking back at it if it isn't a novel mean to be read twice. Having just glaced through the opening chapter again, I realize that the entire novel is contained there-- most of the main characters are in that chapter, and their relationships are very present, but you don't know it yet. Morrison's gift in this novel is for making a book that feels both completely unstructured and masterfully designed at the same time. You never know what will happen next, but you trust that she does.

It's a testament to Morrison's strength then that Song of Solomon holds up. In the hands of a lesser writer, it would be a complete mess, making so many points that it never makes any, hitting so many plot angles that it never lands. In Morrison's hands, the story of the Dead family is a compelling journey forwards and backwards through a history both personal and social. You have to read closely to not get lost, but the novel is a rich and engrossing experience if you do.


Post a Comment

<< Home