Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Toni Morrison's Paradise and the Politics of Community

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Toni Morrison's Paradise and the Politics of Community

Article excerpt

When Oprah first promoted Toni Morrison's writing by making Song of Solomon (winner of the National Book Critic's Circle Award) the second installment in her Book Club, fans of her show in good faith bought the book in droves, increasing sales 25%. Many fans used to the upbeat easy-to-understand subject matter of her talk show found Oprah's choice a little perplexing. But still, in good faith, fans were willing to try Toni Morrison's writing again when Oprah placed her latest novel, Paradise, on the Book Club marketing spree. This time many fans outright rejected Morrison's writing and took issue with her heavy-handed prose and jumpy and hard-to-follow timeline of events.

A reader from Portland, Maine, July 29, 1999:

HARD TO FOLLOW

I WAS VERY DISAPPOINTED WITH THIS BOOK. SO FAR I HAVE ENJOYED ALL OF THE BOOKS ON OPRAH'S BOOK LIST, THAT I'VE READ, HOWEVER THIS ONE DIDN'T CATCH MY INTEREST. I FOUND THE STORY VERY HARD TO FOLLOW, AND I DON'T THINK I MADE IT PAST THE 2ND CHAPTER. I HEAR THAT TONI MORRISON IS A GREAT AUTHOR, AND I DON'T KNOW IF ALL HER BOOKS ARE THIS HARD TO READ, BUT FOR PLEASURE READING, THIS BOOK DID NOT DO IT FOR ME.

A reader from Arizona, July 31, 1999:

Disjointed and vague ... very poor use of language

Toni Morrison (both Beloved and Paradise) is the only author on Oprah's list who engendered distaste in me for the entire work. Both are disjointed and vague . . . so much so that it's very difficult to follow the action or even understand what has transpired. Attempts to use flashback are unsuccessful. Instead, the author jumps from one scene to another in a totally disorganized manner. In Paradise, at the end of the book, it was still impossible to discern what had happened to some of the women who ended up at the convent. The emotions presented are flat and unrealistic. For example, after not seeing her mother for nearly 10 years, a young woman reacts with the intensity one might expect if she'd been in the kitchen and had been away for only a minute or two. The mother, on the other hand, left terrified that this girl was trying to murder her, yet is not affected at all when running into her again. Finally, the mass murder scene as the book opens is left hanging, literally, and in the end there is no clue about how some survived or how they were able to escape w/out notice. This is definitely a 2 thumbs down book!

(www.amazon.com customer comments)

Ripples of the rejection and frustration over Paradise may have contributed to the empty theaters during showings of the Oprah-produced movie version of Morrison's Pulitzer prize winning novel, Beloved, despite Oprah's no-holds-bar promotions on her show and in all forms of media.1

Morrison's response to such frustration over reading her latest book was a rather academic observation of American popular culture:

People's anticipation now more than ever for linear, chronological stories is intense because that's the way narrative is revealed in TV and movies.... But we experience life as the present moment, the anticipation of the future, and a lot of slices of the past.

(Mulrine 2)

Clearly Morrison wants people to be able to distinguish between the contrived plastic visual images they are immersed in daily by consumer culture and the human experience they actually live and try to remember. She made this point more eloquently in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Switzerland in 1993, about the time she began work on the manuscript that would become Paradise:

The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience, it is not a substitute for it. It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie.

(Gray 3)

Is Paradise Morrison's attempt to get closest to the place where meaning may lie? Clearly, for some readers the language Morrison proposes is too frustrating and not much pleasure to get through let alone meaningful (as many of my Introduction to African American Literature students have expressed in not such nice words). …

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