Toni Morrison treads familiar ground in 11th novel, God Help The Child
84-year-old writer's latest tale is strange, absorbing but oddly elusive
God Help the Child
by Toni Morrison
In Ernest Hemingway on Writing, the bearded misanthropist famously asked: "What is the best early training for a writer?" The answer, even more famously, was: "An unhappy childhood." If that's the case, then the characters in 84-year-old Toni Morrison's God Help the Child should all be Nobel prize-winning authors like their creator - and indeed Hemingway himself.
The cast of Morrison's slender 11th novel includes a woman, Bride, who was so eager for maternal affection as a child that she tells a devastating lie to win her mother's notice. Brooklyn, Bride's best friend, is so hardened by her formative years that she seduces her friend's boyfriend and steals her job. The boyfriend, Booker, had his youth dashed to pieces by the murder of his older brother, Adam. The sketched supporting cast include child molesters getting away with murder and an abandoned girl rescued from the streets after fleeing her mother's abusive relationships.
The novel's first section is divided into a series of monologues, dominated by Bride, and fleshed out by her mother, Sweetness, and Brooklyn. The opening pages feel eerily like Morrison parodying Morrison. Themes that resound through her masterpiece, Beloved (1987), and novels such as Tar Baby (1981) echo here: race, skin colour, generational shifts, sex and fury.
It's a strange story - no, make that stories - pretty much from the start. Morrison begins with Bride's birth, which devastates her parents' marriage. The schism is caused by her skin colour, which is considerably blacker than that of her parents. Reif Larsen's superb second novel, I am Radar, employed a similar trope, bequeathing a black baby boy to a Caucasian couple in 1970s America.
God Help the Child asks similarly provocative questions of American tolerance and equality: "It didn't take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs to realise that something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black. Sudanese black."
The shock speaks to Bride's difference from her parents who are "light skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow". Bride's father, Louis, assumes his wife has been cheating and, unable to deal with the suspicion, abandons his family. Deeper, hidden bigotry infects Sweetness' language: "wrong. Really wrong … scared." I am Radar plays a similar game, but with a twist: it's the mother who's taunted by the idea of an affair.
Her desire to clear her name, which triggers a giddily odd plot involving experimental puppeteering physicists, masks broader anxieties about race.
Sweetness, it turns out, is the sort of mother who shouldn't have children: "I even thought of giving her away to an orphanage someplace," she recalls coolly. "All I know is that for me, nursing her was like having a pickaninny sucking at my teat." Sweetness' indifference naturally makes her daughter desperate for her love and attention. Desperate enough that she says: "I used to pray she would slap my face or spank me just to feel her touch. I made little mistakes deliberately, but she had ways to punish me without touching the skin she hated - bed without supper, lock me in my room - but her screaming was the worst. When fear rules, obedience is the only survival choice."
Arguably the crucial plot point, however, is driven by a moment of disobedience when Bride's need for maternal affection motivates her to tell a lie. This betrayal of her fundamental value system is mirrored as she changes her name in the search for a meaningful identity. Her fondness for masks becomes something of an advantage in her business life. She becomes a success, a little crudely, marketing a cosmetic line called "You, Girl".
The name is given to her by the love of that week, a seemingly arty enigma named Booker, who loves her skin tone in rather creepy fashion: "Black is the new black," he tells her glibly, before instructing her to wear nothing but white. "You're more Hershey's syrup than licorice. Makes people think of whipped cream and chocolate soufflé every time they see you."
Booker, we soon learn, has an identity crisis of his own stemming from childhood trauma. This is a novel where no one is as they seem. The problem that Morrison raises without exploring fully is what this disjunction adds up to. Some of the strain is present from the start of Bride's story, which feels sketched to the point of stage directions.
Mourning the loss of Booker, who walks out with a nasty one-liner "You not the woman", Bride hops across alternate plots like a frog on a hot lily pad: "Actually the timing of his leaving was perfect for me. With him gone out of my life and out of my apartment, I could concentrate on the launch of You, Girl and equally important, keep a promise I'd made to myself long before I met him."
The promise involves a frankly baffling passage in which Bride tails, confronts and is bashed about by an ex-con named Sofia Huxley. We eventually learn what is going on, but the sudden explosion of violence feels out of proportion when placed beside make-up and break-ups.
Even more intrusive and dramatically pointless is Brooklyn, whose main purpose seems to be showing two faces. Morrison makes a somewhat half-hearted attempt to fit her into her traumatic schema, noting that her tough upbringing left her intolerant of kindness.
None of this boggles the mind more than a fantastical sub-narrative that mixes hints of The Iliad with F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story of existential regression, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Bride is shedding pubic hair, breasts, weight and, finally, years: "I'm scared. Something bad is happening to me. I feel like I am melting away," Bride says with her first words.
Transformation of a rather different order is eventually revealed. But this strange discovery occurs on a road trip to find out the truth of her man Booker. Hints of Ulysses' wanderings inform Bride's own, as she meets a distinctly un-nuclear family and then Queen Olive (pronounced Ol-li-vay) who holds the keys to Booker's floaty sense of self and sad past.
God Help the Child is a strange, absorbing but oddly elusive novel. The narrative intrigues, moving from the first person to a third person epic as Bride pursues Booker and herself.
The voices prove uneven. While Sweetness is fabulously awful - narcissism made flesh - Bride is less convincing. Would someone that hip, cool and youthful use the word "pudenda"? Her story too is doled out in lumpy spoonfuls, with quite a lot of slop (Brooklyn, Sofia Huxley) simply falling out of sight onto the floor.
As the title suggests, the novel's heart is clearly in the right place. Stress "God", and it sounds like a plea for compassion in a world that says it loves children then abandons, abuses, neglects and kills them.
Morrison's fury also simmers in those four words. Stress "Help" and one hears her despair and disbelief that anyone would consider having offspring. This is related with pathos (Bride's need for physical affection) and occasional moments of flesh-crawling horror: for example, the short account of what happened to Booker's brother, Adam.
Morrison's often bitter pessimism is expressed a little didactically in the grim grandeur of her third-person narrative: "A child. New life. Immune to evil or illness, protected from kidnap, beatings, rape, racism, insult, hurt, self-loathing, abandonment. Effort-free. All goodness. Minus wrath. So they believe." Those last three lines hit home in a separate paragraph and leave you slumped against the sardonic litany of parental delusion. Yet the novel's slightness doesn't quite support such uncomfortable gravitas. And in any case, are those really our choices - despair and self-deception?
Morrison's assault works better when voiced through the almost comically appalling Sweetness, whose name remains ironic to the acrid end. Here is misanthropy you can argue with. Initially, she claims wisdom far too late in her self-centred day: "Taught me a lesson I should have known all along. What you do to children matters. And they might never forget."
The wicked old Sweetness returns full throttle when she learns Booker and Bride are going to have a baby of their own. Her myopic "just-you-wait" unpleasantness is too bad to be true: "Listen to me. You are about to find out what it takes, how the world is, how it works and how it changes when you are a parent. Good luck and God help the child."