Classic Remarks is meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating! This week’s question is:
Which of Toni Morrison’s books is your favorite or affected you the most and why?
I’m going to be honest here. I appreciate Toni Morrison’s work and recognize the complexity and depth of her stories. She grapples with real, painful issues that cannot be easy to write about, and yet her words float across the page as easily as you please. Sometimes you can hear the music in them. But Toni Morrison often writes books that merge the supernatural or magical with the real world–and magical realism (if we can even call her work that) is not really my genre.
That being said, my favorite work of hers that I’ve read is Jazz. (Her short story “Recitatif” comes in as a close second, however.) Jazz tells the story of a cosmetics salesman who cheats on his wife with a younger girl; he then shoots his lover. The book begins with the funeral.
Aside from the skips through time and the unknown narrator, whose identity is is a source of some discussion (I believe it is the actual book speaking), Jazz is a pretty straightforward story, as far as it goes. And that’s a good part of why I like it.
I am also fascinated, however, by the feeling of small-town-ness that pervades the book. It is set in 1920s Harlem, but largely ignores the history of the time to focus on the lives of individuals. Joe the salesman, Violet his wife, and Dorcas his life come to life in startling detail, and it becomes clear that their miniature history, set amongst neighbors who know all too much their lives, is just as important to them as anything the history books could tell you about the cultural happenings of Harlem at that time. They are important, even if history hasn’t told you so.
This type of historical recuperation is a feature of much of Morrison’s work and I think it is handled nicely here; the absence of the Harlem Renaissance allows her to comment on the untold stories of Black Americans. And with her signature conversational style, she draws you in and makes you want to listen.
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