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12th February
2009
written by Steph

In honor of February being Black History month, I decided to read my first Toni Morrison novel.  I knew very little about her or her writing going into this, as the most salient trivia I had catalogued on her was that she had been featured multiple times in Oprah’s book club.  Let’s not hold that against her though, as she’s also been awarded the Nobel prize for Literature.  Also, I’m secure enough in my reading habits to admit that the real reason I picked this up at the used bookstore is because President Obama named it as one of his favorite books.  Ostensibly Beloved is Morrison’s best known book, but since Obama picked this one, so too did I.  What is it about all these O named people and their huge sway on reading habits? Motivations aside, I’m actually really glad I read Song of Solomon, even though I don’t entirely know what to make of it.  By which I mean, reading Song of Solomon, you quickly realize that Morrison is clearly a master writer.  She is so insanely skilled it’s ridiculous.  She weaves such a rich and lush tapestry of a novel, populated with real people who are fundamentally and recognizably human, in spite some of their quirky attributes and the magical/mystical elements that run throughout the plot.  Her writing might be poetic, but it's also extremely authentic.  However, a tapestry is fully of patterns and threads, and as a first-time reader of this novel, I didn’t necessarily feel fully equipped to deal with everything that was going on.  I was immediately impressed by how dense Morrison’s writing is; her words take time to sink into your brain and require some thinking over.  She writes exactly the opposite of disposable prose. It is beyond me how Harold Bloom could dismiss her writing as “supermarket fiction”, but then again, let’s not forget that he’s kind of a pretentious blowhard.  I feel like her novels are not just in the story but also in the telling of it.  There’s a lot to digest in her novels, and as teeming as they are with life and spirit, half the time I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, and found I needed to go back and reread paragraphs because I sort of lost the narrative thread.  Portions of the novel were very engaging and I found I was in the proper groove to read them fluidly, but there were definitely other parts where I felt much of it was going over my head and I was pretty lost. Maybe this feeling of fuzzy-headed discombobulation is a specific tactic Morrison uses in order to ensure the reader’s experience parallels that of her main character, Milkman.  After all, the novel is ultimately one about a journey towards self, towards enlightenment. [By the way, that’s really the best I can do at summarizing what this book is about.  It’s loosely about Milkman discovering himself through the discovery of his family’s history, but it’s really nowhere near as straightforward as that.]  As Song of Solomon began to wind down, I began to finally get certain themes that echoed among the pages, and finally got a sense of the larger picture Morrison was painting.  Is it meta-symbolic that several times throughout the novel Milkman is “blinded” by the darkness around him, and gradually learns to see in the darkness rather than ever finding the light?  Because I really feel like that’s what I was doing, too.  I don’t know that I ever had a flash of realization or understanding that illuminated the entirety of Song of Solomon to me, but instead I fumbled my way through it, grasping what I could, and in the end, I was able to synthesize all of that and understand just a small fragment of it.  Then again, maybe I’m not as strong a reader as I previously thought!  Perhaps for others this novel is clear and precise, but for me it was at times confused and confusing. I really did like it, though.  Morrison has a very distinct and strong voice, and she wields her words like a champion fighter.  Song of Solomon is not an extremely long novel, but it took me quite a while to read despite its length.  It is not the kind of book you can just dip in and out of for short bursts of reading.  There’s no hope for you if you can’t devote a solid hour to it at a time, and the effort involved in parsing the writing is not inconsiderable either, but ultimately, it’s a very rewarding and worthwhile experience.  I think it’s a great example of what great writing can achieve, and how transcendental it can be.  In terms of tone and style, I was reminded very strongly, at times, of Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, one of my all-time favorite books.  That too was an immensely challenging book – both Morrison and Warren have a certain cadence and vernacular to their writing that is not immediately harmonious to my “Northern” ears - and it took some time for me to hit the same stride as it, but it too is a broad-sweeping epic focusing on people of humble origins. On one of the forums I visit to talk about literature, someone remarked upon hearing I was tackling Song of Solomon that she was fairly certain that Morrison is one of those writers who is imminently smarter than she was.  I think that rather than smart, Morrison would more aptly be described as wise.  Harold Bloom asks at the beginning of his book, How to Read and Why, “Where shall wisdom be found?”  Given his previous dismissal of Morrison, clearly he would argue that I am wrong, but I would say that wisdom is contained within the pages of Song of Solomon, but one has to work to attain it.  Like the Oracle, I think Morrison has a lot of answers, but she’s not just going to give them away for free.  It is not the kind of book that everyone will enjoy, but I do think it is the kind of book that everyone ought to try if only for the experience. My overall take on Song of Solomon is that it’s a convoluted and multi-layered tale, that doesn’t just lend itself to multiple readings, but necessitates them if one wants to eventually understand it in its entirety. Knowing how the whole thing turns out, I think I would be better equipped on a second reading to work out some of the snarls and tangles that muddled me up my first time through.  For this reason, I think it is the kind of book that I will ultimately appreciate and extract more from upon subsequent readings.   So with that, I have both removed Song of Solomon from my TBR pile, only to place it back on once more!  Additionally, I'll definitely be checking out more Morrison in the future. Rating: 4 out 5

10 Comments

  1. 02/12/2009

    “She is so insanely skilled it’s ridiculous.” is how I feel about her, too! I’m so glad you liked it, Steph! This is my favourite of all her books, Beloved is a close second, then Sula. I read this only two years ago but I don’t remember much of the details, as, like you said, it’s too layered and complicated (although I’m sure I pretty much understood what the story was about then ha ha). What I remember, though, was the feeling that I got while reading. I remember being so mesmerized all throughout. I’ll be reading this again, too. 🙂

  2. 02/12/2009

    I’ve never read Morrison, and have never felt tempted to read Beloved.This, however, is on my to-read list (along with Jazz), and your review has definitely renewed my interest.

    “She weaves such a rich and lush tapestry of a novel, populated with real people who are fundamentally and recognizably human, in spite some of their quirky attributes and the magical/mystical elements that run throughout the plot. Her writing might be poetic, but it’s also extremely authentic.”

    Sounds great 😀

  3. 02/13/2009

    @Claire: I really did enjoy it, even though at times I found it very challenging. I think I will be interested in trying Beloved next, though I’m also intrigued by A Mercy. That being said, I haven’t done sufficient research to know what any of her other books are about (though my copy of Song of Solomon had no informative back cover blurb, so I pretty much went into it blind). What I really admired about Morrison’s writing was how she is telling a very specific story, one about a very specific culture, and yet I felt she approached it so that it would have universal appeal and impact. I suspect she approaches all of her books in this way.
     
    @Tuesday: I think you would really enjoy Morrison. What I found particularly impressive was how effortlessly she incorporates otherworldly elements into her story without it seeming contrived or irrelevant. Even though certain things she talks about could NEVER happen, you kind of find yourself wondering “but maybe…” I also really enjoyed how you knew as a reader that Morrison understood her characters, that they were real to her, and so she was able to make them real to you. Reading Morrison, I definitely felt that she was really in an upper echelon of writers, and that there is a very definite line between good and great writing. When you read the latter, you just know.

  4. 02/13/2009

    “Reading Morrison, I definitely felt that she was really in an upper echelon of writers, and that there is a very definite line between good and great writing. When you read the latter, you just know.”

    My sentiments exactly!
    Jazz was the least of her books that I enjoyed. But even so, it was really still great writing.

  5. 02/13/2009

    My reason for being less interested in Jazz is completely superficial, and stems merely from the notion that I don’t really like Jazz music so I’m not really interested in a book with that name! Silly, I know! I’ve heard that A Mercy is supposed to be very accessible, which appeals to me, as does the length, as it runs only 167 pages in hardback.

  6. 02/14/2009

    Morrison is one of those writers that I have always wanted to read, yet never have. Most everything I have read about her work has been positive, and most have mentioned the depth and intricacy of her stories and language. Beautiful review! I think it was just the push I needed to finally delve into her books. Thanks!

  7. 02/14/2009

    “She is so insanely skilled it’s ridiculous.”

    One can perceive she’s a master writer from her lush prose. It’s dense and entangled but not overly embellished. She has a knack of weaves humanity with these recurring metaphors and symbols, slowly unfolding the underlying story. Song of Solomon is on my reading list. I’ll hopefully get to Sula before Black History Month is over. Great review!

  8. 02/15/2009

    @ Ziblee: I don’t think there’s anything you can do to prepare for what reading Morrison will be like, you just have to dive in and experience it first-hand! I fully admit that I went in to this one completely blind, with no idea about what type of writer she would be, and I think this worked in my favor, but also worked against me to some extent. I wasn’t prepared for how complex her writing was, so that certainly took some time to process, but then again, if I had heard that she was a “difficult” writer, I might have been scared off and not given her a try. I’m glad I did, and can’t wait to hear what you think about Morrison whenever you do get around to trying her out.
     
    @Matt: Yes, clearly a master writer who packs her writing tight with meaning, but you’re right about it not being overly embellished. I also fully agree that the full impact of her metaphors cannot be truly appreciated until the end of the novel, when everything seems to come together and really blossom. I look forward to one day reading Beloved, which I know you really enjoyed.

  9. 04/11/2009

    If you are looking for a simpler Toni Morrison book, try Sula – wonderful, yet very simple…

    http://nishitak.wordpress.com

  10. 04/13/2009

    Thanks for the recommendation, Nishita. I am on an extended mission to read all of Toni Morrison’s works, so I will definitely read Sula one of these days. Not sure which one I will tackle next, but I look forward to it!

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