On days when I bemoan the state of books and literature, getting pushed aside for typically more “commercially sellable/successful” novels, in place of true art, my heart feels uplifted when I finish a book like “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. Whether you believe it or not, after reading about 50+ books per year, I rarely find more than 2 or 3 books in a year that I get excited about, or admire, or wish ardently I could’ve written it…Call it snobbery or whatever you like, but I prefer to think of it as quality control. 🙂
I was inspired to read this book after I happened to catch an interview on BBC’s “Talking Books”. In this interview, Morrison’s presence awed me – she was so calm and quiet, yet spoke with such wisdom while she described her idea for this book, and the concept of “self-loathing”, I knew I had to read it.
Morrison’s prose is magnificent. At once poetic, yet able to delve right into the heart of the characters; what Virginia Woolf often referred to as tunneling, or carving out caves for her characters – I feel Morrison does this exceptionally well. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, she writes with details, like her character Pauline BreedLove who liked to arrange things, “to line things up in rows – jars on shelves at canning, peach pits on the step, sticks, stones, leaves…whatever portable plurality she found, she organized into neat lines, according to their size, shape, or gradations of color”. It’s these details that humanize the characters, and Morrison has stated it was always her intent to humanize the characters, even the ones who “trashed Pecola and contributed to her collapse”. She even does this with the villains Cholly (Pecola’s father who rapes and impregnates her) and Soaphead Church (hypocritical would-be minister): Cholly is described as a castaway himself with no parents who ever loved him, Soaphead who gets deserted by his wife and cannot stand human contact.
Though these characters perform evil deeds, there is a still a tiny seed of empathy that resonates with the reader. You may hate the villains, but to some degree, you understand them. They are human, and privy to same human vices as us all, for who among us is wholly good or unabashedly evil? No, most of us are mix of black and white, shifting uncomfortably among shades of grey (pardon the terrible reference) within no-man’s-land that makes us imperfect human creatures.
Yet at the heart of this novel is the question of racial self-loathing vs. racial beauty. Who decides this and what impact does it have on the young & innocent? What responsibility do we have as a society, as members of the community to either perpetrate or eliminate these prejudices? How do certain blacks look at themselves and how to they judge or vilify each other? I find Morrison does an excellent job posing these uncomfortable questions, as I feel this is what all good literature should always do – make us think, pose unpleasant or even unsettling questions, ultimately to show us a slice, a sharp reflection of real life, in all of its flaws and beauty. It’s not about making us feel good; it’s about making us THINK.
The only flaw of this book was the narrative structure. Although Morrison’s original intent was to “break the narrative into parts that had to be reassembled by the reader” in her attempt to center “the weight of the novel…on so delicate and vulnerable a character” as Pecola, she misses the mark.
And Morrison knows this, writing in her afterword, “the execution of which does not satisfy me now…it didn’t work; many readers remained touched but not moved”. Her various points of view from Claudia’s first person narrative as a child trying to speak as an adult, while beautifully written, had me scratching my head, asking, Would a child be able to write like this, or is this an adult reminiscing about her past?? Whereas the dialogue and vernacular of blacks in that community was pinpoint accurate and a joy to read, the alternating third person, omniscient narrator for Pauline, Cholly, and Soaphead’s stories were confusing and disjointed. Though I understand Morrison’s intent for the language, I think it could have been structured better and I think she agrees writing, “I can say my narrative project is as difficult today as it was thirty years ago”.
But I applaud and admire Morrison for her accomplishment, as it reminds me that good books with something to say are worth both writing and reading. RATING: 8/10