Thursday, February 25, 2010

Toni Morrison's A Mercy

Last fall, a phrase from something I read -- I thought it might have been from Ondaatje's Divisadero, but couldn't find it on a quick skim through; perhaps it's in Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault -- started me thinking about the concatenation of my reading, the way one book bumps up against another, creating resonances and reverberations neither would have had on its own.

Such is certainly the case for the particular concatenation of following Penelope Lively's Family Album with Toni Morrison's A Mercy. Reading backwards, it's possible to see a questionable mercy at the heart of Lively's novel. Primarily, though, much as I enjoyed Album and admired the shimmering hologram of family complexity Lively skilfully projects from so many points of projection, the novel's concerns and the contemporary obsessions they reflect appear trivial in the light of Morrison's novel and its exploration of a much more important history -- that of the slave trade. Still, the novels can work as useful complements in developing an understanding of how memory -- and history-writing and recovery -- work. What is true on a family scale -- that some members have a vantage point for representing their stories; that shame and silence have a powerful effect on the narratives we tell; that silenced, shameful memories have surprising ways of resisting and persisting nonetheless -- are manifestly, according to Morrison's work (not only in this novel, but in her overall oeuvre) true on a national (and international) scale as well.

I once saw an interview featuring Morrison. In it, she said something to the effect that if you are going to confront your readers with difficult truths, you need to give them some compensation for that confrontation -- the aesthetic delivery should provide some kind of payoff, reward, redemption even, for the ugliness of the narrative events. I'm paraphrasing crudely, but I think I'm capturing the spirit of what she said. A Mercy does, indeed, deliver the compensatory beauty, but what a terrible history the novel illuminates, a history that Morrison's work, overall, has insisted, book by book, that America acknowledge as its foundation. The novel's structure is a marvel, one requiring patience and a willingness to puzzle over ellipses, one that stitches together disparate characters and geographies and times until all coalesce in the final horror, the central mercy at the novel's heart, that given to, taken by a mother, which requires her to take solace in giving away her own child. We instinctively want to say "I can't imagine what that would be like." We should be so grateful that Morrison has forced herself to do just that.

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