Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

morrison_song.jpgWith last year's A Mercy (review here) a return to the form demonstrated most famously in her 1987 novel, Beloved (review here), Toni Morrison has resumed her elite standing among aficionados of literary fiction after a lengthy post-Nobel Prize slump. She even took home the coveted "Rooster" in this year's Tournament of Books. Though her first two books were certainly well-received, it was Song of Solomon which brought Morrison a truly national audience (inspiring no less than one Barack Obama).

Published in 1977 and presented with the National Book Critics Circle Award that year, Morrison's third novel takes its title from the short Old Testament book about love, also known as the "Song of Songs." The book follows the life of Macon Dead III, nicknamed "Milkman," from birth into middle-age. It also explores the lives of Milkman's family: his namesake father Macon Dead II, obsessed with money and property and cool to everything else; his mother Ruth, who feels that she has not been loved by anyone since the death of her father; and his aunt Pilate, who lives in the same Michigan town as her estranged brother, along with her daughter (Reba) and granddaughter (Hagar).

But though plentiful attention is paid to this riveting ensemble, the framework of the book is Milkman's lack of any sense of identity, as a man, as a black man, and as a member of a family with more than its share of secrets. For most of his youth and early adulthood, Milkman does his best to ignore this lack, this want, seeking to survive on ignorant hedonism alone. But little by little, the revelations of his origins and the realities of the external world catch up with him and refuse to be ignored:

Milkman lay quietly in the sunlight, his mind a blank, his lungs craving smoke. Gradually his fear of and eagerness for death returned. Above all he wanted to escape what he knew, escape the implications of what he had been told. And all he knew in the world about the world was what other people had told him. He felt like a garbage pail for the actions and hatreds of other people. He himself did nothing. Except for the one time he had hit his father, he had never acted independently, and that act, his only one, had brought unwanted knowledge too, as well as some responsibility for that knowledge. When his father told him about Ruth, he joined him in despising her, but he felt put upon; felt as though some burden had been given to him and that he didn't deserve it. None of that was his fault, and he didn't want to have to think or be or do something about any of it.

Milkman's method of studied ambivalence about the world around him is not matched by his childhood friend, Guitar (seen earlier in the novel getting evicted with his grandmother by their landlord, Milkman's father). Indeed, Guitar has become involved in a shadowy local organization called "The Days," which seeks to match attacks by whites against blacks with reciprocal violence. The group is comprised of seven men, each of whom is responsible for responding to any attacks that occur on a particular day of the week. Milkman fails to see how this cycle of militancy does anything to improve the lot of African-Americans:

Milkman frowned. "Am I going to live any longer because you all read the newspaper and then ambush some poor old white man?"

"It's not about you living longer. It's about how you live and why. It's about whether your children can make other children. It's about trying to make a world where one day white people will think before they lynch."

"Guitar, none of that shit is going to change how I live or how any other Negro lives. What you're doing is crazy. And something else: it's a habit. If you do it enough, you can do it to anybody. You know what I mean? A torpedo is a torpedo, I don't care what his reasons. You can off anybody you don't like. You can off me."

Amongst the family secrets that Milkman learns is that shortly after his father and aunt watched their own father murdered by white men intent on stealing his farm (an experience that forever scarred them both), Macon and Pilate hid in a cave and discovered a buried treasure of gold, which Pilate refused to let her brother take. More than half a century later, Macon convinces his son to travel back to Pennsylvania to see if the gold is still there:

Suddenly he felt ridiculous. What was he supposed to do? Put his suitcase down and ask the man: Where is the cave near the farm where my father lived fifty-eight years ago? He knew nobody, had no names except the first name of an old lady who was now dead. And rather than call any more attention to himself in this tiny farming town than his beige three-piece suit, his button-down light-blue shirt and black string tie, and his beautiful Florsheim shoes had already brought, he asked the counterman if he could check his bag there. The man gazed at the suitcase and seemed to be turning the request over in his mind.

This quest soon takes Milkman further south to Virginia, where there are the slightest hints of ancestry amongst the disconnected threads Milkman knows about his family's past. Somewhere along the way, this journey for his father's lost gold becomes a journey for his own soul, an odyssey into his family history, an inquiry into his place as a black man in a hostile world, and a reexamination of his role as a son, brother, and lover:

It sounded old. Deserve. Old and tired and beaten to death. Deserve. Now it seemed to him that he was always saying or thinking that he didn't deserve some bad luck, or some bad treatment from others. He'd told Guitar that he didn't "deserve" his family's dependence, hatred, or whatever. That he didn't even "deserve" to hear all the misery and mutual accusations his parents unloaded on him. Nor did he "deserve" Hagar's vengeance. But why shouldn't his parents tell him their personal problems? If not him, then who? And if a stranger could try to kill him, surely Hagar, who knew him and whom he'd thrown away like a wad of chewing gum after the flavor was gone--she had a right to kill him too.

Apparently he thought he deserved only to be loved--from a distance, though--and given what he wanted. And in return he would be. . . what? Pleasant? Generous? Maybe all he was really saying was: I am not responsible for your pain; share your happiness with me but not your unhappiness.

Though Milkman's story features most prominently in the novel, Morrison devotes substantial attention to his family and friends. Particularly striking are the female characters, most of whom suffers from a sense of abandonment. The most obvious examples are Ruth, who never recovers from her father's death, and Hagar, who is discarded by her lover. Both share biblical namesakes who similarly suffered from the realities of patriarchal society. And yet the story's purest character, the symbol of love and hope, is the ironically named Pilate, who somehow seems to exist outside the boundaries of the other characters and their society, yet is integral to virtually every piece of the story.

Morrison also heavily emphasizes the continuing ramifications of slavery, rendering as simple a thing as the protagonist's name a lingering example of white cruelty (Milkman's grandfather was given the name by a drunk Union soldier), while also incorporating into the plot real-life tragedies including the murder of Emmett Till and the Birmingham Church bombing. The most disparate reactions, as discussed above, are between Milkman and Guitar, one of whom prefers avoidance, the other retribution.

Song of Solomon is at once more ambitious and less successful than the two Morrison novels I mentioned at the start of this post. The novel seeks to speak to the complexities of black life, both in the family and in society, including a feminist critique of the treatment of women, a recognition of the pervasive influence of slavery and racism, and the bevy of various reactions to all of the above my individual black men and women. Perhaps due to this expanded ambition, the book lacks some of the coherence of A Mercy, and it never quite hits the emotional resonance of that book or Beloved, which retains my vote as Morrison's masterpiece.