Morrison's 'Paradise': Lyric gravitas

January 11, 1998|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Staff

"Paradise," by Toni Morrison. Alfred A. Knopf. 321 pages. $25.

During an interview with Claudia Tate in the 1980s, Toni Morrison put her finger on a difference between men and women that has become a leitmotif in all her work since.

"Men always want to change things, and women probably don't," Morrison told Tate. "I don't think it has much to do with women's powerlessness. Change could be death. You don't have to change everything. Some things should be just the way they are."

But because men, in Morrison's view, think change is important, much mischief results. "Under the guise of change and love, you destroy all sorts of things: each other, children." The horrific murders that culminate Morrison's latest novel can be traced directly to men's misguided urge to change things that were better left alone.

The awful deed is announced in the first sentence of the novel, but its explanation requires a densely woven narrative that recounts the triumph and ultimate failure of five generations of inhabitants of an all-black Oklahoma town.

Set in the 1970s, the book evokes past, present and future to reveal the interior lives of an astonishing collection of wayward women and dutiful wives, embittered businessmen and tormented ministers, proud war veterans and the layabout young men who are their progeny.

VTC By the end of the tale, the reader understands the bitter irony that underlies the hopeful title, "Paradise."

This is Morrison's seventh novel - the most recent was "Jazz" in 1992 - and her first since she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

"Paradise" shows her at the top of her form, uniting the meticulous craftsmanship of early works like "The Bluest Eye" (1970) and "Sula" with the magical realism and deep moral insight of the later works like "Beloved" (1987).

Her ability to employ ordinary words to produce lustrous, lyrical phrases and to evoke precise emotional perceptions is extraordinary. Here, for example, is the black preacher, surely one of the most original characters in all American literature:

"On stage and in print he and his brethren had been the heart of comedy, the chosen backs for parody's knife. They were cursed by death row inmates, derided by pimps. Begrudged even miserly collection plates. Yet through all that, if the Spirit seemed be slipping away they had held on to it with their teeth if they had to, grabbed it in their fists if need be.

"They took it to buildings ready to be condemned, to churches from which white congregations had fled, to quilt tents, to ravines and logs in clearings. Whispered it in cabins lit by moonlight lest the Law see. ... From Abyssinian to storefronts, from Pilgrim Baptist to abandoned movie houses, in polished shoes, worn boots, beat up cars and Lincoln Continentals, well-fed or malnourished they let their light, flickering low or blazing like a comet, pierce the darkness of days."

Impressive, eloquent and powerfully imagined, Morrison's latest novel brilliantly fulfills the charge of supurb characterization and moral gravitas one has a right to expect from an American Nobel Laureate in literature.

Glenn McNatt is an arts columnist for The Sun. He was previously an editorial writer for 10 years at The Sun and began his career as a college English teacher.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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