Song of Solomon

by Toni Morrison


For most of its length this book positively soared, mirroring the exhilarating flights that haunt its protagonist, the lyrical wind of its gorgeous prose and unforgettable characters whipping my face in its wake.  It was one of the greatest books I had ever read.

Then, at Ch. 12, without warning, it simply plummeted to the ground in a mangled wreck, unable to recover itself in any meaningful way.  The last 50 pages were a shocking reversal of everything magnificent that had come before them.

I put it down about 10 minutes ago and I’m still perplexed.  What happened?  How did a spellbinding, moody, supernatural, Southern Gothic mystery get completely derailed?  How did I suddenly cease to care for the fascinating characters I had grown to love over almost 300 pages?  How, in just 50 pages, did the book relinquish the drastic advantage it enjoyed over the only other Morrison novel I’ve read, The Bluest Eye (see my review)?  And not just “relinquish,” because that implies a struggle took place; this was a throwing in of the towel.

I think a large part of the problem came when Milkman stopped feeling true.  In Ch. 11 he has a sudden realization about how much of an asshole he has been his entire life, and just like that he changes.  Morrison is skilled enough to make it believable, but it gnawed at me.  That happens so seldom in reality that I’m very tempted to use the word “never.”  But you should never say “never,” I guess.

What comes next is some of the flattest and tritest inner monologue I’ve ever seen in serious literature: “. . Ever since Danville, his interest in his own people. . . had been growing. . . Who were they, and what were they like?”  You’re basically left with a self-help book, with Milkman just talking himself through the solution to all of his problems.  There’s no drama, just exposition.  It reminds me of The Celestine Prophecy in its badness.

Then what’s left of the momentum we’re feeling around Milkman gets sapped when we jump both chronologically and perspective-wise back to Hagar in Ch. 13.  The rest of the book feels disjointed.  There’s none of the smooth storytelling that took up the vast majority of the book, and there’s none of the sympathy either.  By this point Milkman’s just a hollow voodoo doll that things are happening to, and the only other main-ish character is Pilate, who we’ve abandoned for so long in the 2nd half of the book that she’s now difficult to care for.

It’s such a shame, because the book up until then was a masterpiece:  the prose that straddles the fence between stream-of-conscious and thoughtful poetry; the insights on society, culture and race; and the Homer-esque mythology where people fly, bear children without navels and encounter hundred-year-old witches named Circe.

These are all the pages I marked for some variety of riveting passage: 38, 44, 68, 99, 103-4, 116-17, 138, 151, 183-4, 222, 232, 276-77, 280-81.  And I was trying to be discerning. This is the one from 138:

. . . Hagar was shouting and digging her fingers in her hair.  It was an ordinary gesture of frustration, but its awkwardness made Ruth know that there was something truly askew in this girl.  That here was the wilderness of Southside.  Not the poverty or dirt or noise, not just extreme unregulated passion where even love found its way with an ice pick, but the absence of control.  Here one lived knowing that at any time, anybody might do anything.  Not wilderness where there was system, or the logic of lions, trees, toads, and birds, but wild wilderness where there was none.

So yeah.  Morrison writes well.  That’s how the book still earns 4 stars after leaving me in stunned disappointment.

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