Toni Morrison. Nobel Laureate. Indisputable literary giant. Sorceress with words. Shall I go on?
“Jazz” is the story of race and love and sex and anguish and the City in a bygone era. Toni Morrison works her magic, composing a lilting song of betrayal and discovery that floats and jumps like improvisational jazz. “Jazz” is told by an omniscient first-person narrator who is never identified, who despite frequent use of “I” never shows herself in the story. “Jazz” plays with time and space, dancing from the thoughts of one character to another, from one generation to another with fluid grace.
In this story, Morrison’s characters feel the magical pull of New York that seems to transcend gender, race, and age. Her unidentified narrator tells us:
“I’m crazy about this City. Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see looking faces and it’s not easy to tell which are people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is shadow where any blasé thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things.”
Her characters are full of dreams, of desires spoken and unspoken. And they are full of desperation, often swept forward by the need for love rather than by its presence. One of the central figures in the story finds herself struggling to kindle, not quench, passion for a man who has betrayed her.
“Now I have to think this through, carefully, even though I may be doomed to another misunderstanding. I have to do it and not break down. Not hating him is not enough; liking, loving him is not useful. I have to alter things. I have to be a shadow who wishes him well, like the smiles of the dead left over from their lives. I want to dream a nice dream for him, and another of him. Lie down next to him, a wrinkle in the sheet, and contemplate his pain and by doing so ease it, diminish it. I want to be the language that wishes him well, speaks his name, wakes him when his eyes need to be open.”
I don’t know if I agree with it, but I am moved by the beauty, by the purity of the sentiment.
Morrison’s themes are as timeless as her prose. Sadly, some of the lines – written in the 1990s of the 1920s – could well be written of today. The racism and fear her characters face in the mundanity and in the extraordinary aren’t ghosts of the past; they are specters of the present. When a woman’s niece is shot by a man, her corpse attacked by his wife, she feels incapable of expecting any justice in these ‘black on black’ crimes.
“She would have called the police after both of them if everything she knew about Negro life had made it even possible to consider. To actually volunteer to talk to one, black or white, to let him in her house, watch him adjust his hips in her chair to accommodate the blue steel that made him a man.”
I ache thinking this scene could be playing out somewhere right now.
So, “Jazz”. Life, love, prejudice, poverty, and hope. Presented with eloquence and fearsome strength. By a modern master.