This was a hard book to read: hard to find my way through Morrison’s dense imagery, overheated personal drama, circuitous narrative style, magical realism. And hard to stomach its subject matter: hardly any aspect of human degradation has been omitted. There were passages that brought to mind my recent experience in reading Dante’s Inferno, but even Dante introduced some moments of grim humor; Toni Morrison doesn’t. She doesn’t understand the concept of restraint; she gives her reader no respite, nothing that can be taken lightly, glossed over, put to the side as stage dressing. You must either swallow it whole or dismiss it altogether. It’s hardly surprising that many readers have detested the book while others praise it to excess. There can be no middle ground.
Morrison is not concerned with telling a story; attempting to follow the plot is not only frustrating: doing so misses the point. She is intent on getting across the emotional journey of her tortured characters, what conscious state they are inhabiting, rather than how they came to find themselves there or whether they are dwelling in the present or re-living bits of some former existence. The concerns of the moment are far outweighed by the business of dealing with memory, with what might have been, of roads taken, trials endured, sacrifices made.
Even though I understand all that, I still find myself resenting Morrison’s helter-skelter time-shifts that rendered the book more laborious to read than it needed to be; hence my less than ecstatic rating of it.
Trauma doesn’t stop when the event itself ends. No matter how many times you tell yourself that this is a new day, all of that agony is in the past and best left behind. We are cursed with memory and the worst horror is that which we carry in our own mind, because there is no escape. We carry it with us to the end of our days. Perhaps worse, we cannot truly share it with anyone else; what our own mind subjects us to must be borne alone. That is the cross that Sethe must bear in this brutal, horrifying novel and that's what this book is all about: the agony of memory.
"All she wanted was to go on. And she had. Alone with her daughter in a haunted house she had managed every damn thing. Why now, with Paul D instead of the ghost, was she breaking up? Getting scared? Needing Baby? The worst was over, wasn’t it? She had already got through, hadn’t she?"
In the end, after each stream of consciousness has been allowed to run its course, after all the sound and fury, Morrison reverts to poetry, or at least her own brand of free prose and we’re left more or less back where it all began. The presence of Beloved will fade, questions of her origin, her nature or whether she even existed at all cease to matter.
Paul D says "Sethe, me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow."