by Toni Morrison (1987)
This is a hard book for me to rate. I’m quite certain it’s brilliant, beautiful, heart-breaking, poetic, innovative and IMPORTANT. I’m pretty sure it’s one of the greatest U.S. novels ever written. But then it’s also kind of a slog, right? I mean the 1st half at least? Anyone. . . you, over there (person I’m talking to quickly averts eyes)? No? Just me?
Ok. . . (uneasily shifts eyes back and forth several times). . . well I’ll just say I’m a voracious reader and these 275 pages took me about two weeks. For comparison: I recently read about 1500 pages of Stephen King in the same period of time (shout out to my Dark Tower!). I admired the hell out of this book but simultaneously avoided picking it up at all costs. It’s kind of like that album you own because it’s so universally acclaimed but never really feel like listening to — for me, the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds.”
So is that where we’re at? Beloved is the “Pet Sounds” of literature? A monumental tour-de-force that’s a work of mad genius but also frustratingly aloof? For me I think it is.
That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate it. The prose is gorgeous and pristine. The structure, probably the main factor in its inaccessibility, is nonetheless brilliant and altogether necessary to provide a comprehensive view on the horrors of the period. The characters are realistic and deep, yet also wonderfully symbolic and even archetypal. And most rewarding for me are all of the incredibly poignant and devastating observations on the outrage of historic U.S. racism.
Part of me wants to give it four stars, but I think that would be sort of cowardly. Not that I think it’s “brave” to give such a universally loved book a low score, but just that I didn’t really feel it or enjoy it, and I think giving it a higher rating would be me trying to feel smarter than I actually am in this case. I do believe it deserves a higher rating, but I’m incapable of appreciating it on that level for now. Part of the blame could lie with my recent Stephen King binge, which conditioned my brain for all of the sugary breeziness of pop-fiction — pretty much the antithesis of Morrison’s aim here.
Anyway, I think I’ll keep it around and re-read it several years down the road. Hopefully I’ll be a better, more mature reader by then and thus better able to fully appreciate this masterpiece for what it is. (Maybe by that time I’ll like “Pet Sounds” too!)
I will say I first read this in either a highschool honors class or in one of my early semesters of college, and it’s a total disservice to both the book and the reader to do that. There’s no way such a young reader could appreciate this thing. All I remember from our discussions was a lot of talk about “rememory” and the “Your love is too thick” line. Something like Kindred (incidentally, the book that inspired me to re-read this now) would be much better for the YA set.
But if you’re a Serious Reader, or interested in the best of U.S. literature, I highly recommend this. Probably belongs with Faulkner on that particular shortlist.
As far as critics go, it seems like the most popular one-star reviews boil down to the following mostly terrible arguments (my rebuttals in italics):
–It’s too abstract/incomprehensible. . . Yes, kind of like impressionist paintings. Do you hate Monets because the images aren’t well-defined? Do you hate Seurat’s iconic “Sunday Afternoon” because the subjects’ facial expressions are indecipherable? This is a stylistic choice and just because you don’t like it doesn’t make the book bad.
–“It’s trying to make me feel guilty for being white” . . . I already get that (slavery was bad). . . “no need to beat that into my head with a bloody axe”. . . Or maybe it’s a blackwoman wanting to explore the black experience of slavery and you’d have to have your whitehead pretty far up your white ass to believe she’s writing primarily with white people in mind. . . but I guess since you already “get it” there’s no need for anyone else to read about it either. . . This criticism, taken verbatim from one of the highest rated reviews on here, is mind-blowingly self-centered and sadly typical of white guys who are completely ignorant of white privilege. It also turns out, judging by his review date, that he was still a teenager when he read it (see above note on young readers).
–It´s “heavy-handed.” Not really sure what this means and few of the people who lofted this criticism ever elaborated. The notable exception was [P]’s review which is the only well-reasoned negative review, though I still disagree. Where [P] sees clumsiness I see confidence.
–I was too young when I read it. . .Yep, I had the same problem, see above.