Voila, the reviews in today’s Sunday Books page.
and finally, Toni Morrison’s Home, which I reviewed.
Look Back In Anger
Recently, we’ve seen a revival of the 1950s’ and 1960s’ aesthetic on television. Yes, there was rampant alcoholism, homophobia, misogyny and racism, but the striking characteristics of television shows like The Hour and Mad Men are the unrelenting charm and cutting wit of the sharply-stylish cast whocarry their melancholia like it’s a luxurious accessory.
Mad Men’s Don Draper and Frank Money, the protagonist of Home, have some things in common. Both were in the Korean War. Like Don, Frank returns to America, is awarded a medal and has phantoms from the war nipping at his heels. Like Don, he becomes an alcoholic and has nightmares. Unlike Don, Frank is black and this makes all the difference.
Home begins with Frank finding himself in a “nuthouse”. He manages to escape from there and sets off to reach his sister, Cee, before she dies. He has watched his parents die; he was helpless when his friends died before his eyes in Korea; Cee is the only part of his innocence that has survived, which is why he must reach her in time to save her life. Ever since they were children, Frank has been her protector and it’s a role he needs to fulfil, for both her sake and in order to create a bulwark against the self-hate consuming him since he returned from the Korean War.
As Frank makes his way to Georgia, the memories of different characters — Frank, Cee, Frank’s ex-girlfriend, Lily, and Miss Lenore, Frank and Cee’s grandmother — meander through Home, like ghosts flitting in and out of a seance. Each chapter is a fragment that begins in the middle, elaborates upon Morrison’s central theme of the harshness of the 1950s, and closes with an open-ended conclusion. Grandmothers beat and starve their grandchildren, an old car is more valuable than a young woman, the police search black men for no reason and take whatever money they find in pockets and wallets. Offsetting these cruelties are small miracles: helpful strangers, healing women and a mysterious figure in a zoot suit. It quickly becomes clear that the characters in Home exist as point and counterpoint. Perhaps most short-changed is Lily, who hastily crams chunks of both her own and Frank’s backstories in her chapter.
There are passages in Home in which Frank engages in disputes with the narrator and insists he’s not the hero he’s being made out to be. They’re sporadic and awkward because they don’t really disrupt the narrative that is sympathetic to Frank. According to Morrison, heroism comes from surviving this racist, violent America. Home opens with the image of a corpse being dumped.
A few pages later, an old man is beaten to death because he refuses to leave the land on which generations of his family have worked. Violence and injustice are everyday acts, committed not just by the traumatised veterans who have no place in society, but also by civilians, like the callous doctor who endangers Cee’s life.
As horrifying as his own behaviour seems to Frank, his acts of cruelty don’t stand out as particularly heinous in this context.
For Morrison’s fans, Home is full of familiar markers — the solitary wanderer; the folk wisdom of women; the unborn child that Cee imagines is like a reverse of the ghost of the baby who haunts Sethe in Beloved. Sprinkled throughout Home are evocative images and phrases that glint in the middle of simple sentences and catch the reader’s attention. Yet, despite its lyricism and poignancy, Home feels skeletal. The chapters read like exercises that are ably executed but lack sinew, layers and structure. The characters seem like sock puppets that exist only to set scenes for Frank and Cee. Moving as it is, Home reads like an abbreviation rather than a completed novel.