In the last couple of years, the American novel’s male elders have been springing surprises on their readers. Earnest E. L. Doctorow published a radically unreliable narration, Andrew’s Brain, influenced by neuroscience. Norman Rush left his usual Africa for a comedy of manners in upstate New York—Subtle Bodies. Robert Coover released an 1,100-page sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, to his first novel, which he published in 1966. The late world-circling Robert Stone surprised with a domestic college novel (Death of the Black-Haired Girl), and the late Peter Matthiessen, though a WASP, published a Holocaust fiction (In Paradise). At 84, Toni Morrison is getting in on the pleasure of confuting expectations, performing new tricks.
Since Beloved in 1987, Morrison has published five novels that range over 300 years of American history and over various, highly specified settings: ’20s New York City in Jazz, village-founding in Reconstruction Oklahoma in Paradise, the Florida Gulf coast in the ’40s and later in Love, 17th-century Virginia in A Mercy, and a small Georgia town after the Korean War in Home.
God Help the Child is contemporary, its setting is a fuzzy invented California, and the novel’s subject—child abuse, real and imagined—seems ripped from the tabloids. Developed around the romance between the exotic beauty Lula (self-named Bride) and suspected felon Booker, God Help the Child does resemble one other Morrison novel: Tar Baby, which also featured a beauty-and-the-beast affair and had a plot that turned on the discovery of child abuse. But that book was published in 1981 and was, even then, considered anomalous.
God Help the Child is not just unexpected. It’s also constructed of concatenating surprises: acts of charity and violence without apparent causes, resolute judgments of characters that are soon reversed, sudden unexplained abandonments, lies quickly exposed, secrets popping out, rapid shifts from several first-person narrations to omniscience and back whenever the author wants to withhold or reveal information. The whiplash effect of Morrison’s surprise beginnings and surprise middles makes describing the novel without resorting to a series of spoiler alerts difficult, so be patient with any vagueness that follows if you’re a person, like me, who will read anything Morrison writes and who doesn’t want to know too much beforehand. If you’re not a Morrison loyalist, I promise to be more specific in my evaluation at the end.
Bride is a “blue-black” wondergirl who has overcome her mother’s shame at her daughter’s very dark skin to be, at 23, the Jaguar-driving regional manager of a cosmetics company and creator of her own line of “You, Girl” products. On the recommendation of her “`total person’ designer,” she dresses all in white to accentuate her color. At a concert, Bride is picked up by Booker, a slightly older hunk whose name suggests, not Booker T. Washington, but the high-powered books that Booker Starbern reads. Though Bride falls asleep when Booker discusses water issues in California, they make a beautiful couple when out and about, the sex is great, and it’s a “fairy-tale castle” affair. But after a few months together, Booker rocks Bride’s world by abruptly leaving her. She, along with readers, needs to know why, but Morrison somewhat artificially keeps his disappearance a mystery until the end.
Just after Booker leaves, Bride is dealt another shock. She is beaten up by a person she tries to help, a newly paroled woman who was imprisoned for child-molesting. Recovered from her attack, Bride discovers where Booker may have fled and leaves the city (perhaps Los Angeles) for the rural, lumber-cutting area of northern California. On the way, though, she runs her Jaguar into a tree, seriously injures her ankle, and is nursed back to health for six weeks by two 50ish hippies who have a daughter, Rain, whom they rescued from a mother who was pimping her as a child. About now, the novel’s plot and characters begin to seem implausible: would an accidentally marooned junior executive live for six weeks in a converted shed without plumbing or cell phone reception? And all the characters—Bride, Booker, Rain, Bride’s friend Brooklyn, even the paroled “monster”—turn out to be victims of childhood neglect or abuse.
The last third of the novel is more familiar Morrison territory: like the identity-questing Milkman Dead of Song of Solomon, Bride leaves the city for the village, recovers physical strength, and meets a symbolically named crone recalling Milkman’s Circe. Bride wonders if she is “being seduced into a witch’s den,” but the old woman—herself a careless mother of numerous children—dispenses wisdom just before Morrison does away with her in yet another accident. I won’t say if Bride finds Booker or not, but she does read some of his writings and comes to important realizations.
God Help the Child contains several references to Galatea and to fairy tales, so I suppose the novel can be read as a contemporary, composite fairy tale replete with the mistreatment of children found in Grimm. In several cases, this abuse is traced back to racial victimization, but Morrison also includes episodes of race neutral molestation. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, contrasted the fairy tale atmosphere of school primers with the incest inflicted on young Pecola Breedlove. That abuse was at least partially “explained” by the racist environment in which Pecola’s African-American family was imprisoned, but cultural history is less important here than personal histories. At the end of The Bluest Eye, the pregnant Pecola appears irretrievably damaged. By the last pages of God Help the Child, Bride and Booker begin to recognize how the shame and anger of their histories distorted their lives. Maybe they won’t be eaten like the Gingerbread Boy who fled his parents’ intent to devour him. And perhaps God Help the Child is, like Coover’s sequel to Origin of the Brunists, a late-life reimagining of Morrison’s first novel, a more hopeful, valedictory book by a writer whose best-known protagonist tries to kill all her children. Morrison’s sometimes childish characters are alive, not crazed like Pecola, and may even have a child they will protect from the depredations chronicled here. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that I believe Oprah, the queen of recovery narratives, should love God Help the Child.
Other admirers of Morrison’s work may be pleasantly surprised by her presentation of young contemporary characters. I was not. She has little feel for or interest in Bride, who seems to have wandered over from a Terry McMillan novel to be taught a lesson by Toni Morrison. Booker at least has some ideas unrelated to personal appearance, but he is simplified by his obsession with boyhood trauma. Compared with the fraught love story of, for example, Jazz, God Help the Child is very thin. Fairy tales are not known for thick representation, air-tight plotting, complex characters, or layered language, but this novel is essentially a work of over-determined present-day realism. Though well-intentioned, God Help the Child lacks the persuasive weight and affecting art of Morrison’s other novels—and illustrates just how dependent she has been on history for substance and eloquence.
When I interviewed Ms. Morrison more than 30 years ago, she told me she wanted to write “village literature,” novels that could be read by the African-American characters in the books. Since then I’ve found very few of her characters to be likely readers, but in God Help the Child, as in other Morrison novels, it takes a village to bring a big-city cosmopolitan to her or his senses, so in this way God Help the Child is village literature. Morrison knows how small towns can oppress (see Sula and Paradise), and yet their close community, folk traditions, and earthy values beckon to her. Although she’s no nostalgist, it’s the past surviving in American villages that gives her fiction its authenticity.
Villagers speak a different dialect from literate city dwellers, and Morrison’s art has often relied on the pleasurable and sometimes instructive contrast between down-home vernacular and the high literary. In God Help the Child, she puts little effort into distinguishing the first-person voices and the third-person narration from each other. Her last two historical novels, A Mercy and Home, are, like God Help the Child, slight, less than 200 pages long. But those novels’ settings—both temporal and spatial—seem to have demanded from Morrison some of that elaboration of detail and stylistic dexterity that gave her early work authority and beauty. Only once in this novel, when Morrison describes how a spark becomes a conflagration, did I find her bearing down on the page as she used to. She includes a few passages of Booker’s stream of consciousness writing, but his musical prose, which recalls her earlier full-throated style, has the unfortunate effect of directing attention to the uninspired writing that surrounds Booker’s sentences.
Morrison frames God Help the Child with the first-person narration of Bride’s elderly and ailing mother, who calls herself Sweetness. “It’s not my fault,” she says in the novel’s first words. Later she tells us “What you do to children matters,” and ends the book with “God help the child.” Just because Sweetness speaks the title phrase doesn’t mean she’s a stand-in for Morrison, and yet Sweetness’s diffident detachment from her daughter and her formulaic phrases are similar to the author’s perfunctory engagement with her materials. I’ve compared God Help the Child to Tar Baby, which is often considered Morrison’s weakest novel, but it is major Morrison—Jamesian in its rich setting and subtle complications—next to this new book.
Several years ago Philip Roth surprised his loyal readers when he retired from writing without the Nobel Prize he has been rumored to badly want. Perhaps it’s time for our only living Nobel winner to consider resting on her past laurels—her many fine books about the past.