No one would be surprised to hear that times are turbulent, and not just financially. Along with notions of the marketplace, practically all our big concepts are in doubt.
By Toni Morrison
Take history. Is it possible to believe in anything even remotely like a collective past? What events will govern that story? Who will tell it and from what perspective? Under these conditions, Toni Morrison's new novel seeks to do the unthinkable -- discover a way of talking about ourselves that makes sense.
Put it this way, "A Mercy" is a slim book that wants to tell an epic story of American origins. An ambitious project under any circumstances, given these times her project has set quite a task for itself.
Here are the novel's main events:
In the late 17th century, a young black girl, Florens, is given away by her mother to a supposedly good man, Jacob Vaark, as payment for her master's debt.
With mixed feelings, Vaark returns with the girl to his farm, a sort of doomed Faulknerian estate. There she lives with Vaark's wife, Rebekka; a Native American house servant, Lina; and another slave girl, Sorrow.
Vaark, who becomes infected as much by dreams of material grandeur as the pox, soon dies, though not before infecting his wife.
Florens is sent for a blacksmith who once cured Sorrow of the pox. Gradually, we learn that Florens is obsessed with getting to the blacksmith because she is lovesick over him.
The novel operates on assumptions not unlike William Carlos Williams' "In the American Grain," which sought "to re-name the things ... lost in ... borrowed titles."
Like that book, the novel wants to reveal deeper truths about early America, about the possibilities of leading a good, decent, full life in a culture rife with contradiction and lush with enticement. In Morrison's words, it tries to see if people can find a meaningful "way to be in the world."
The events of the novel are interesting and the ambitions of Morrison not without significance; however, the book's length, structure and technique tend to work against its better motives.
Choosing to present the varied strains of American colonial history primarily through allusion, Morrison places her characters against a backdrop that is so abbreviated that their quest for that meaningful life is difficult to take seriously.
Coincidence rules where motive should be paramount, and the behavior of characters mostly derive from simply discovering themselves in proximity to somebody else.
This insistence on situation, rather than deep motivation turns the novel into a series of gestures, the characters into near caricatures, the plot into a collection of vignettes, the interwoven textures of the time period into inferences.
Morrison's narrative choices lead to elliptical storytelling with many unexplained details -- why didn't anyone send for the blacksmith when Vaark was ill? --and to sentimental excess. For example, Sorrow renames herself Complete after she has her baby.
Even Florens' girlish crush on the blacksmith, which forms so large a part of the book, borders on the silly, because its one-dimensional presentation reads like the human interest stories populating nightly news.
Under such narrative burdens, the grand sweep of the book is threatened. The dark, complicated threads of early American settlement -- greed, envy, suspicion, menacing violence, debauchery, as well as ethnic tension, religious bigotry and slavery -- become through concision something like a suggestive stage set.
Plot and viewpoint jump and cut with such abandon that they resemble those films and television shows in which quick scene change substitutes for drama.
If Morrison refutes the official history of heroic European settlers planting noble ideas on a virgin continent by focusing instead on the "orphans" and "exiles" eking out lives on the periphery, then it also asks deeper questions:
Can the cognitive habits of our hyper-speed minds meaningfully capture the past with its slower pace and denser textures?
Do we in 21st-century America have a way of understanding our history, our collective selves?
If Morrison's new book only sometimes rises to the occasion, maybe the fault is as much because of our times as anything else.
Robert Peluso teaches literature at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.