Toni Morrison's new novel, Home, is deeply flawed. It travels ground Morrison has previously travelled, without bringing new insight. Its characters are not drawn with much subtlety. The violence that is, rightly, an aspect of her depictions of life for African Americans, has begun to feel like just another part of her thematic arsenal. (Violence has become, for Morrison, what child molestation was for Nabokov: an authorial reflex, a cold fascination.)
That none of the characters is particularly sympathetic is not, to my mind, a flaw. But, here, Morrison's protagonist, named Frank Money, suffers from a post-traumatic stress that makes him unsympathetic – and he's a child killer.
Reading about Frank Money is like witnessing Morrison's struggle to find something redemptive in a character to whom she has given almost insurmountable character flaws. The novel is interlarded with chapters that feature Money's "own voice." These are chapters in which the character chastises the author for getting things wrong; Frank himself supplying the "truth."
That's fair enough and serves as something of a counterbalance. The problem is that although these chapters start off fairly plain-speaking, they become more poeticized as the novel goes along, feeling at times literary (feeling like Morrison rather than Money) in a way that mars the impression of counterbalance or corrective. One is constantly aware of Morrison's slightly awkward manipulations.
Home also suffers, occasionally, from Morrison's reaching for – but not attaining – poetic diction and imagery. For instance: "He saw the boy pushing his entrails back in, holding them in his palms like a fortune teller's globe shattering with bad news." If she'd stopped at "fortune teller's globe," no problem. But the "shattering with bad news" makes you stop and wonder how guts might "shatter."
Then there are the moments when words are disposed on the page like poems. This happens twice: once at the very beginning and once at the very end. On both occasions, Morrison is trying to get at the idea of "home". But she succeeds only in making a strong, rooted idea (the idea of home) feel awkwardly "cosmic."
It's difficult not to wonder, while reading this novel, if it would have been published in its present state, were it not written by Toni Morrison. So … how could one recommend it?
Well, to begin with, it is written by Toni Morrison. It falls squarely within her universe. It's like a note sounded in a music that Morrison has been creating for some time and, in context, it's an interesting addition. It has its virtues as well as its flaws.
The novel I thought of first while reading Home was Thomas Mann's final novel, The Black Swan. Mann was around 78 when The Black Swan was published, Morrison is now 81. Both books are the product of lives lived practising an art form. In both cases, the efficiency of storytelling is striking. It's as if the thing one gets after a life of writing is clarity of narration. You get to the heart of the matter immediately.
Here, Morrison catches a moment of childhood – a brother and a sister seeing horses in a field and then witnessing something terrible – and one is swept up. She then cuts straight to Frank Money's life when he returns to the U.S. after the Korean War. Money is a terribly wounded and potentially dangerous veteran. Morrison catches you up in the story in a heartbeat.
Beneath the flaws, there are strong hints of what underlies Morrison's vision here. Home is a retelling of the Odyssey. Her Ulysses (Frank Money) is terribly damaged. The home he returns to is not the one with wife and son and kingship. It's the "home" we glimpsed at the beginning of the novel, a place that allows for the love and intimacy that exists between a brother and sister. For Morrison, home is what we protect, the people we would die for. It isn't about houses or towns. (One of this novel's characters is obsessed with property and possession. It's no surprise that she finds neither home nor peace.)
Asked about the difference between Louis Armstrong as a the young trumpet player and the older Louis Armstrong, Keith Richards said it was obvious that the older Armstrong wasn't as technically able as his younger self, but that he got to the essence of Louis Armstrong more quickly: not the cascade of notes, the soul. So it is with Toni Morrison and Home. The flaws and virtues of Toni Morrison's creative vision are immediately on display.
If you love Morrison's sensibility, Home may be for you. It's a crystallization of her sensibility. If you don't know her work, this is not the place to start. Far, from it. Begin nearer the beginning.
Contributing reviewer André Alexis is in Florida, working on his next novel.