Welcome, old and newcomers, and many thanks for participating in our month-long discussion of Jazz. To those of you new to the book, I’m stupid jealous that you’re getting to discover it for the first time.
This week we’re discussing sections 1-3, which in my Plume paperback copy takes us through page 87 and leaves off with Violet and Alice talking in the latter’s apartment. Discussion questions are in bold, if you’d prefer to skip over all of my cockamamie analysis. Leave your comments below, and check the “Notify” button to receive updates via email.
What better way to kick-start a discussion than to piss everybody off? Eric Miles Williamson is a writer and critic down here in good old Texas, and I recently read a piece he wrote on Morrison’s A Mercy. Here are a few choice quotes:
“I’m no fan of Toni Morrison and her lachrymose characters, her predictable subject matter (downtrodden Negroes), the obviousness of her hatred for white men (as if every one of us is a slave-owning rapist), the in-your-face ad miseracordiam whine and wimper [sic] that runs through all her oeuvre.”
And then later:
“When a stinking bum on the streets hassles me for money, I want to kick him in the teeth with my cowboy boot. But when I see someone quietly shivering in the cold, I want to give him my jacket and my pocket money and buy him a meal, and I’ve done so. Morrison seems pathologically compelled to beg for our sympathy: I want to kick her characters in the teeth.”
Does Toni Morrison “beg for our sympathy?” Does she have an obvious “hatred for white men?” Or is Williamson misreading her work? If so, how?
[In a (somewhat) related piece, our own Jacqui Bryant writes here about having labels ("minority, black, African-American") associated with her writing.]
[Also, rather than rehash what I've already written about the opening, I'll point you to this blog post I wrote exploring the opening six lines. No obligation to read it. But if you do, you can skip down to the section heading titled "Sth."]
Who in the *^&*%* is Telling This Story?
One major point of debate in this book is, who is the narrator, or who are the narrators. Opinions vary widely. Some think the City is the narrator. Others believe it’s Morrison herself, as writer, or even that the narrator is some sort of representation of jazz. Other considered possibilities include a rotating POV between some of the major characters.
Or that the narrators are a group of people sitting around telling the story together, one picking up where the other leaves off. For example, on (my) page 24, where Section 1 ends with talk of the parrot who says “I love you,” and then Section 2 picks up with “Or used to.” Most of the chapters here, if not all of them, bleed into the next in this fashion.
What do you guys think? Who is narrating Sections 1-3? (Let’s try not to skip too far ahead–or if you do, please begin your comment with “Spoiler Alert.”)
Here are a few samples of the first-person narration that may provide evidence one way or another:
“I haven’t got any muscles, so I can’t really be expected to defend myself. But I do know how to take precaution. Mostly it’s making sure no one knows all there is to know about me.” (8)
“I lived a long time, maybe too much, in my own mind. People say I should come out more. Mix. I agree that I close off in places …” (9)
“I have seen the City do an unbelievable sky …” (35-36)
“I’ve wondered about it. What he [Joe] thought then and later, and what he said to her [Dorcas].” (71)
If I keep this up I’ll never finish this post and you guys will bombard me with “tl;dr.” So let me quickly get to some other highlights.
Joe and Violet
After returning from her disruption of the funeral, Violet lets her birds go, “set[s] them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, ‘I love you.’” (1) To me, this is reminiscent of a mother whose children leave the home to start lives of their own. Like in much of Morrison’s work, motherhood is a key theme in Jazz. What does this moment, letting go her birds, mean to Violet? What does it tell us about her that she teaches her parrot to mimic “I love you?” (Assuming she’s the one who did so)
And Joe. He’s comfortable telling Dorcas about this moment back in Virginia when, as a child, he hoped his mother might acknowledge him as her son. Joe never tells anyone about this, until “the fall of 1925 when he had somebody to tell it to. Somebody called Dorcas.” (37) Why can Joe say to Dorcas what he’s never been able to say to Violet?
When Joe is talking to Malvonne he says that Violet is “Cooking pork I can’t eat,” and then later we read, “Joe looked forward to the lean, scrappy end-of-week meals, but hated the Sunday one: a baked ham.” (68-69) What is this issue with Joe and pork and Violet’s cooking?
From Point B to Point A
Morrison has a habit–in all of her books–of early on alluding to an incident that will come much later, without making it clear in that first mention what the import is. For example, those of you who know Jazz are familiar with the importance of Golden Grey, who isn’t even mentioned by name in this first part. But as early as page 17, we read about “the hair of the little boy who got his name from it … the blond boy who ran away from them depriving everybody of his carefully loved hair.”
Or later, on 23, several chapters ahead of where we see the scene where Joe first lays eyes on Dorcas, we read, “Long before Joe stood in the drugstore watching a girl buy candy, Violet had stumbled into a crack or two.” Morrison does this again and again. What does she gain from this tactic? Are these passages supposed to build intrigue and keep you looking ahead? Do they?
Morrison writes about plenty of historical events (the 1917 East St. Louis Riot and the resulting Silent Parade, to name two), but she also alludes to some that I can’t find any info on (“the 27th Battalion betrayed,” “the fate of the S.S. Ethiopia“). Harlem and NYC are real, of course, but Vesper County doesn’t exist, nor do most of the towns it contains. Why the mix of factual and fictional when it comes to historic events/places in this book?
Music and the City and Rage
I can’t even begin to condense the role music plays in this first section (and the whole book). Even when Morrison isn’t writing about music, she’s writing about music: the “artificial rhythm ” of a seven-day week, when the body prefers “triplets, duets, quartets”; language being an “intricate, malleable toy designed for their play.”
Alice Manfred’s section, from 53-60, is fascinating. On 59 we read her feelings about jazz: “it wasn’t real music–just colored folks’ stuff: harmful, certainly; embarrassing, of course; but not real, not serious.” Is this Alice’s true opinion of jazz (that it equals immorality, recklessness), or is there something else going on below the surface? What do the drums of the Silent Parade mean to her?
Later we read about the “feelings, like sea trash,” that hit Alice after the murder. “Chief among them was fear and–a new thing–anger.” Is anger really “a new thing” to Alice? “Black women were armed; black women were dangerous.” Alice doesn’t “understand women like” Violet, “Women with knives”; but Violet says “I wasn’t born with a knife.” Alice replies, “No, but you picked one up.” Alice claims not to understand the rage black women are feeling in mid-1920s Harlem. Do you believe her? Does she truly not see how the music, the City (always capitalized in this book), black women and rage are all working together?
I should probably cut this off, lest it get even more out of control. There’s just so much to talk about here. Please feel free to raise your own questions, and to kick me in the groin when I’m off base. Again, leave your comments and questions below, and when replying to another comment, please hit “Reply” so the threads don’t get too confusing.
For next Tuesday, read Sections 4-6, which in my version takes us through page 162.