Classic review: Jazz
Toni Morrison's poignant tale of tragedy in 1920s Harlem.
[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on April 17, 1992.] It was hard to imagine what Toni Morrison would do for an encore after her stunning achievement in "Beloved," her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the psychic scars of slavery. But in her sixth novel, Jazz, she demonstrates once again that she is one of the most brilliant and inventive American novelists writing today.
Reviewing scores of novels every year can induce a tendency to feel a little jaded. But "Jazz" is a book I found hard to put down. Indeed, it's a book I found myself reading aloud - even when no one else was around to listen - just for the sheer pleasure of hearing the musical, yet perfectly natural and colloquial, sound of the never-to-be-identified voice that narrates the story.
The nameless narrator tries to tell us everything right at the start: "Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going.
When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, 'I
love you.' "
So, from the start, we see the stark outline of what happened. What we - and the narrator - want to find out is why did this happen and what does it all mean? In a series of flashbacks, imagining her (or his) way into what "must have been" the various characters' states of mind, the narrator attempts the "risky" (her word) business of trying to discover the truth: not the facts of the killing, but the truth of how the people touched by this tragedy felt about themselves and one another.
The killing takes place in Harlem in 1926. Although everybody knows that Violet Trace's husband Joe shot the girl, no eyewitnesses are willing to come forward. It's further explained that "the dead girl's aunt didn't want to throw money to helpless lawyers or laughing cops when she knew the expense wouldn't improve anything. Besides, she found out that the man who killed her niece cried all day and for him and for Violet that is as bad as jail."
Joe and Violet are a childless couple just entering their 50s. They are country folk from Virginia, who were drawn north 20 years before by the promise and excitement of the big city:
"The minute they arrive at the train station," muses the narrator, "or get off the ferry and glimpse the wide streets and the wasteful lamps lighting them, they know they are born for it. There, in a city, they are not so much new as themselves: their stronger, riskier selves."
"Convinced that he alone remembers those days," Joe, a faithful husband for 20 years, turns to 18-year-old Dorcas, an aspiring beautician who lives with her very strict Aunt Alice.
Poor Alice had tried hard to keep her orphaned niece on the straight and narrow, safe from the temptations of city life. Unlike the narrator and the Traces, who love city life, Alice is alarmed by it. She even hates the sound of jazz: "... she heard a complicated anger in it; something hostile that disguised itself as flourish and roaring seduction. But the part she hated most was its appetite.... It faked happiness, faked welcome, but it did not make her feel generous, this juke joint, barrel hooch, ton k house, music."
The irony is that Alice - and everyone else - thinks of Joe Trace as safe: "A nice, neighborly, everybody-knows-him man. The kind you let in your house because he was not dangerous.... the sort women ran to when they thought they were being followed...." And, as we learn, Joe is the nice man he seems to be: gentle, kind, intending no harm.
As the story unfolds, we come to understand, if not excuse, what happened. The characters themselves cannot excuse their own behavior, which baffles them. Violet is obsessed by the memory of the dead girl whose face she slashed: What was it about her that Joe found so special? She is driven to visit the girl's Aunt Alice, who is understandably frightened. "I'm not the one you need to be scared of," she assures her. "No?" asks Alice. "Who is?" "I don't know," Violet admits. "That's what hurts my head."
Some of the most interesting scenes in the book are the subsequent meetings of these two very different women who come to respect each other, even before they learn to understand each other. "We born around the same time...," Violet tells her. "We women, me and you. Tell me something real. Don't just say I'm grown and ought to know. I don't. I'm fifty and I don't know nothing. What about it? Do I stay with him?"
Violet, Joe, Alice, Dorcas, and the other characters are ordinary, yet highly individualized, people who are brought face to face with serious questions about how to live their lives: the kind of questions it was once fashionable to call "existential."
Morrison handles these profound themes with gravity and a touch of wry humor: There is not the least hint of pretension or portentousness to mar the spontaneous-seeming flow of the (jazz-like!) narrative.
Without further violence or violation, without any miraculous spiritual epiphanies, without even the trimmings of melodrama, the survivors manage to repair their lives, much to the surprise of the nameless narrator, who had not reckoned on the human capacity for regeneration and who now offers us the gift of their poignant, sad, ultimately restorative story.
Merle Rubin was a frequent Monitor book reviewer.