Twenty years ago this spring, as a student at Oberlin, I took a course on the novels of Toni Morrison with Dr. Gloria Watkins. (As an author she’s bell hooks; as a teacher she insisted on Dr. Watkins.) Whether for good or ill I won’t, and perhaps can’t say, but I don’t think any other course I’ve ever taken affected me as strongly. Morrison at that time had written five novels: The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1974), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), and Beloved (1987). The world was slow to recognize the significance of her work — Oprah picked The Bluest Eye for her book club in 2000, thirty years after its publication — but her rise as an author was both inexorable and perfectly matched with the zeitgeist. By the spring of 1989, an earnest young aspiring writer, with the help of a brilliant and charismatic mentor, could easily use Morrison’s work as a lens to bring literally anything and everything of interest into something like focus: literary style, literary theory, historiography, sexuality, America, gender, race, the politics of authorship and the authorship of politics . . . . Truly anything and everything. Morrison was born in Lorain, down the road from Oberlin. I drove there with a friend, just to see it.
We kept journals for the class, in which we recorded not only our critical responses to the novels, but also accounts of whether or how we understood our personal lives in relationship to the ideas we perceived in the novels. Dr. Watkins, in other words, encouraged us to think not just about how we were reading the novels, but also about how the novels were reading us. I remember a few things I wrote in that journal — things simultaneously outrageously self-flagellating and outrageously self-aggrandizing — and cringe. (It did/not help that I was dating an African American woman at the time.) But I also remember that Dr. Watkins was incredibly, improbably generous and encouraging in her responses to my (literally) sophomoric blather. I think she could tell that my intentions were good, that I really was struggling to understand who and what I was in relationship to the culture that had birthed and determined me. And I suppose my intentions mostly were good, and hopefully not in a paving the road to hell sort of way, or at least not only that.
The experience of taking that class turned Toni Morrison into something other than just another writer for me; she was more like a planet I’d visited. In the years since, I’ve returned to reread the novels I read with Dr. Watkins and my classmates — Tar Baby, believe it or not, was and remains my favorite; I love its cruel simplicity; I’m also someone who thinks Kitty is way more interesting than Anna, though, so caveat emptor — but I’ve resisted reading what I persist in thinking of as the “new” novels: Jazz (1992), Paradise (1997), Love (2003), A Mercy (2008). I didn’t want to read them alone. I didn’t want to be disappointed. I didn’t want them to be the same as the ones I’d read, but I didn’t want them to be different, either.
Then my beloved picked up a copy of Paradise at the Friends of the Library bookstore and I found myself reading it, and, with for me unusual speed, finishing it. A complex operation, since I felt like I was reading two books at once: one in my hands and one the changeling child of my memories. Amazingly, given the circumstances, I found Paradise pretty much pure pleasure. The novel satisfies in myriad ways, by being itself myriad. It’s rooted in a particular historical reality and filled with vibrant living characters but, in that inimitable Morrison manner, it’s also incredibly slippery. Archetypal conflicts (male/female, black/white, community/individual, sacred/secular, inside/outside, city/country, rational/occult) are set up, adumbrated, complicated, exploded, and rewritten, again and again, until it’s absolutely impossible to saddle the novel with summary or force it to generate a lesson. I think it’s terrific, but I’m probably not a very objective judge, but it’s terrific.