The NY Times calls Toni Morrison’s book the best work of American fiction over the last 25 years!
by Charlie Leck
“Early this year, the Book Review's editor, Sam Tanenhaus, sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years." The results - in some respects quite surprising, in others not at all - provide a rich, if partial and unscientific, picture of the state of American literature, a kind of composite self-portrait as interesting perhaps for its blind spots and distortions as for its details.” [A.O. Scott, in his essay cited below]
You might like to look at the winners of the survey about which Scott writes in his essay.
I had never read a thing by her – out of her how many popular books? – not a thing! I assumed she wrote mushy books for women! Why? I don’t know. Perhaps because she spells her first name with an ‘i’ at the end. Okay! Okay! Don’t jump me for that! I only now learn she won a Nobel Prize and a Pulitzer.
So, Beloved, Morrison’s novel of 1987 was the winner of the major survey – the great American novel. I thought of myself suddenly as an illiterate. Again, I’d never read anything by her.
I checked in with one of my children.
“Toni Morrison?” I asked! “What? Really? I’ve never read her? Where should I begin?”
“Oh,” my daughter said, “with Beloved, of course.”
So, I did.
Why, to my surprise, I discovered a writer – a really extraordinary writer with imagination and boldness! I love to find writers who sometimes create sentences that you just want to go back and read and read and read again and again. Morrison does that. A small novel like Beloved I would normally read in a long afternoon and evening. It took me days to read this very extraordinary story because I kept going back to make sure I understood. And, I frequently went back and reread sentence after sentence because they were so mysteriously beautiful.
Morrison is terribly quotable! She writes sentences that you want to record because they are both beautiful and meaningful. I include here some quotations from Beloved.
A shudder ran through Paul D. A bone-cold spasm that made him clutch his knees. He didn’t know if it was bad whiskey, nights in the cellar, pig fever, iron bits, smiling roosters, fired feet, laughing dead men, hissing grass, rain, apple blossoms, neck jewelry, Judy in the slaughterhouse, Halle in the butter, ghost-white stairs, choke-cherry trees, cameo pins, aspens, Paul A’s face, sausage or the loss of a red, red heart.“Tell me something, Stamp.” Paul D’s eyes were rheumy. “Tell me this one thing. How much is a nigger supposed to take? Tell me. How much?”“All he can,” said Stamp Paid. “All he can.”“Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?” [p. 235]
By the time he got to Mobile, he had seen more dead people than living ones, but when he got to Trenton the crowds of alive people, neither hunting nor hunted, gave him a measure of free life so tasty he never forgot it. Moving down a busy street full of whitepeople who needed no explanation for his presence, the glances he got had to do with his disgusting clothes and unforgivable hair. Still, nobody raised an alarm. Then came the miracle. Standing in a street in front of a row of brick houses, he heard a whiteman call him (“Say there! You!”) to help unload two trunks from a coach cab. Afterward the whiteman gave him a coin. Paul D walked around with it for hours – not sure what it could buy (a suit? a meal? a horse?) and if anybody would sell him anything. Finally he saw a greengrocer selling vegetables from a wagon. Paul D pointed to a bunch of turnips. The grocer handed them to him, took his one coin and gave him several more. Stunned, he backed away. Looking around, he saw that nobody seemed interested in the “mistake” or him, so he walked along, happily chewing his turnips. Only a few women looked vaguely repelled as they passed. His first earned purchase made him glow, never mind the turnips were withered dry. That was when he decided that to eat, walk and sleep anywhere was life as good as it got. And he did it for seven years till he found himself in southern Ohio, where an old woman and a girl he used to know had gone. [pps. 269-270]
Decimated but stubborn, they were among those who chose a fugitive life rather than Oklahoma… The forced move to the Arkansas River, insisted upon by the same president they fought for against the Creek, destroyed another quarter of their already shattered number.That was it, they thought, and removed themselves from those Cherokee who signed the treaty, in order to retire in the forest and await the end of the world. The disease they suffered now was a mere inconvenience compared to the devastation they remembered. Still, they protected each other as best they could. The healthy were sent some miles away; the sick stayed behind with the dead – to survive or join them.
The prisoners from Alfred, Georgia, sat down in semicircle near the encampment. No one came and still they sat… The Cherokee saw the chains and went away. When they returned each carried a handful of small axes. Two children followed with a pot of mush cooling and thinning in the rain.
Buffalo men, they called them, and talked slowly to the prisoners scooping mush and tapping away at their chains… Weeks later Pau D was the only Buffalo man left – without a plan. All he could think of was tracking dogs, although Hi Man said the rain they left in gave no chance of success. Alone, the last man with buffalo hair among the ailing Cherokee, Paul D finally woke up and, admitting his ignorance, asked how he might get North. Free North. Magical North. Welcoming, benevolent North. The Cherokee smiled and looked around. The flood rains of a month ago had turned everything to steam and blossoms.“That way,” he said, pointing. “Follow the tree flowers,” he said. “Only the tree flowers. As they go, you go. You will be where you want to be when they are gone.” [pps. 111-112]
Would I call Beloved the best novel of the last 25 years?
Well, I need to begin with some thoughts about which books qualify. What are the last 25 years? Books published in 1982 and after? Too bad, that leaves out Saul Bellow’s extraordinary novels, Herzog, and Humbolt’s Gift. Neither does Tom Robbins wonderful contribution, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, qualify in the time span. And, Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, isn’t American, is it?
Okay, let me get down to brass tacks. Remember, all of this is highly personal.
Beloved was wonderful, but I measure against it a few other works of wonder. In no special order of preference they were: The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien); Gilead (Marilynne Robinson); and A Soldier of the Great War (Mark Helprin).
But, when I think about it, Beloved was more than wonderful. It was intense. It was rich with imagery.
That being said, I’m having a hard time listing others that are better. However, I don’t go along with some of the books that finished as runner-ups to Morrison’s novel. In the interest of full disclosure I’ll admit I haven’t read the Cormac McCarthy novel, Blood Meridian. Updike’s sequel Rabbit novels were okay, but never came close to matching Rabbit Run, which would be a hands down winner if it were published within the proper time span. American Pastoral, was fine, but I wouldn’t place it so high.
Marilynne Robinson’s book, Housekeeping, got lots of consideration. I haven’t read it. I’ll go back and do so. If it is better than Gilead, wow! I’m glad to see that The Things They Carried got some consideration.
Who knows? That Beloved is even considered among the best books of this last twenty-five years is compliment enough. It demands to be read. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel in 1988. She won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. In announcing the prize, the Nobel Committee said:
“She delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race. And she addresses us with the luster of poetry.”Toni Morrison is now planted in my mind as a sound and astounding author who deserves to be read and she has a lengthy bibliography for me to examine and from which to choose.
Okay! I've thought it through and I agree with the NY Times survey. Beloved is the best novel of the last quarter century! I buy it!