Saturday, January 3, 2009

“Jazz” by Toni Morrison

Year of publication: 1992
Genre: historical novel
Setting and time: Harlem, NYC, in the 1920s and Virginia in the 1880s-1910s
Themes: love, adultery, migration to the city, social and racial issues in the States

Nobel Prize in Literature, 1993

About the author: Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931 and spent the first years of her life in Ohio. She received an undergraduate degree in English from Howard University and completed a master's program at Cornell. When many of her classmates had difficulty pronouncing her uncommon first name, she changed it to Toni (a derivative of her middle name). In 1958, she married Harold Morrison, an architect from Jamaica, and the couple had two sons. They divorced six years later. After pursuing an academic career teaching English at Howard, Morrison became an editor at Random House, where she specialized in black fiction. At the same time, she began building a body of creative work that, in 1993, would make her the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her 1970 novel The Bluest Eye was followed by Sula in 1974, which secured Morrison a nomination for the National Book Award. In 1977, Morrison won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her book Song of Solomon. Her other works include Tar Baby (1981), Jazz (1992), Paradise (1998), and, of course, Beloved. That novel, considered by many to be her best, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.

Plot: Joe Trace is in his fifties. He is a door-to-door salesman who migrated from Virginia to the City with his devoted wife Violet. He meets Dorcas, an eighteen-year-old girl, and he falls in love with her. The relationship doesn’t end well, as Joe shoots her to death at a party. During the funeral, his wife Violent tries to disfigure the corpse of her rival with a knife.

Some thoughts: I guess that from the plot you thought “Eeeewww, what kind of book is this?”. The plot is actually a bit weird and it takes a while to get into the story, mainly because of Morrison’s style, which is a bit complicated, as probably you know if you’ve read Beloved. There are more than one narrator and sometimes it’s not straightforward who’s narrating the story. By the end of the story, anyway, all the characters have their own distinctive voices and you can enjoy the beauty of Morrison’s prose.
The reason why the novel is called “Jazz” is probably that it is made up of different narrations of the events, just like the solo compositions and improvisations that give life to jazz music. Wikipedia also says that the novel “utilizes the call and response style of jazz music, allowing the characters to explore the same events from different perspectives”. I didn’t notice that while I was reading the novel, but it’s true.
Once you’ve understood the trick of the different narrators, it is astonishingly easy to read this novel, despite the difficult topic (adultery and murder). However, it’s not as powerful as Beloved, which I adored despite having nightmares and crying from the beginning to the end. It is, of course, a lighter book, which shifts from blues to ragtime, as wikipedia would put it.There isn’t much to say about the plot, because this is exactly what happens: a fifty-year-old man has a love story with an eighteen-year-old girl, then he’s jealous of her younger boyfriends and in a moment of madness shoots her. His wife Violent-Violet gets mad and tries to stab the corpse during the funeral. There are flashbacks that tell us how Joe and Violet met and fell in love back in Virgina in the 1880s and flashbacks that tell us how Joe met the young girl, Dorcas. and fell in love with her. The motivations of the characters are a bit blurry, but I guess that it is what happens when you’re doing something crazy and stupid like killing your lover or stabbing a dead person out of jealousy.
Maybe not Morrison's best novel, but still a pretty good book.

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