StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

A Review of Toni Morrison’s A MERCY

Posted in Books by streetlegalplay on November 3, 2008

By Kyle Thomas Smith

This is my review of Toni Morrison’s new book A Mercy.

It will appear this week in Edge Magazine.

In 1990, three years before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Toni Morrison said in an interview with Bill Moyers: “I rewrite and rewrite to make the books look like they were written in a matter of hours.”

That’s one of the things I love most about Morrison whom I hail as one of the world’s greatest living authors. In interviews, she might appear to be all intellect, but her greatest works—Sula, Song of Solomon, Jazz, Beloved—are marked by simple, immediate prose that builds up to a burning tower of mythology, violence, calamity, deprivation and her characters’ tempestuous wills to survive. Over the course of her 38 years as a novelist, Toni Morrison has singlehandedly established a universe in which the black experience stands with one foot on the skids of America and the other in the anarchy of an ancient Greek tragedy. When I am hungry for inspiration, I often devour the fierce, possessive passages in Morrison’s books and find my imagination sated while my body quivers from aftershock.

Unfortunately, I did not experience such rapture upon reading her hotly anticipated new novel, A Mercy. When I first picked up the slim 169-page book, I rustled my backside into the couch, preparing for the ride of my life, but soon found myself turning over for a nap. Although lush and erudite, the narration runs like molasses. Pulling my attention back to the storyline was like wrestling the Good Year Blimp back to the ground with a lasso. Thinking that I might just have been having an off day, I gave the book another try the next day…and the next…and the next…and the following week. For the first time in my experience of Morrison, my attention consistently drifted away from the page and into the stratosphere. Oh, how I yearned for the reprieve of her past perfection! Alas, it did not come. No doubt Morrison deserves an A+ for effort and concept on A Mercy, but it’d take round after round of rewrites to give this book the momentum of her masterworks.

Like her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved, Morrison’s A Mercy tackles the subject of American slavery. Where Beloved studied the catastrophic effects of slavery in the years before and after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, A Mercy is set in the 17th Century when slavery first took root in the Dutch, Scandinavian and English colonies on America’s eastern seaboard. In an August 2008 interview, Morrison told New York magazine that she “wanted to get to a place before slavery was equated with race. Whether [slaves] were black or white was less important than what [slave-masters] owned and what their power was.” Where Morrison’s prior works explored societies of people marginalized on account of their race, A Mercy is more of a historical tale meant to underscore Morrison’s scholarly contention that “there is no civilization that did not rest on unpaid labor—not Athens, not Russia, not England, no one.”

Yet the novel’s young slave Florens subsists under conditions that are idyllic compared to the unrelenting treachery in Seth’s life in Beloved. The book begins with Jacob Vaark, a Dutch trader, travelling on horseback through the wilds of Virginia to Maryland to settle a debt that a Portuguese landowner, Senhor D’Ortega, is incapable of paying. Vaark compromises by accepting D’Ortega’s offer to give him one of his slaves. A slave named minha mae begs Vaark to choose her own nine-year-old daughter Florens. Vaark and D’Ortega agree to the arrangement while Florens crumbles inside at her mother’s betrayal. However, Vaark turns out to be a kind, compassionate master who owns acres of forested land in a Dutch-inhabited colony. He has two indentured servants and a Native American worker named Lina, who gloms on to Florens, conferring on her the love she had for the tribe she lost to a smallpox epidemic. Morrison creates a setting where black, white and red seem to all be treated the same.

But when Jacob Vaark dies, his wife Rebekka goes mad with grief. Rebekka had escaped religious persecution in England and hoped to find happiness by marrying Vaark in the New World. Only, disease was so rampant and conditions were so untested that Rebekka ended up losing child after child on its soil. Vaark’s death proves enough to set Rebekka over the edge. She begins to lose faith in a personal God and exacts the role of plantation termagant: “The pleasure of upbraiding an incompetent servant outweighed any satisfaction of a chore well done and the housewife raged happily at every unswept corner, poorly made fire, imperfectly scrubbed pot, carelessly weeded garden row and badly plucked bird.” Moreover, the novel comes equipped with Sorrow, an orphan servant girl who is the repository for all the foreboding that brews in the back of all minds on the Vaark estate. Like Little Father Time in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Sorrow is the embodiment of a doom foretold in the days after Vaark’s death and in the formation of a nation where slavery will soon flourish in the uttermost cruelty. Yet having known life when Vaark, whom Florens refers to as Sir, was still alive, Florens comes to discover that her mother’s abandonment was, in fact, a mercy.

In A Mercy, Morrison tells the stories of more than half a dozen major characters from their own individual points of view. Yet, right up to the last page of the novel, the characters remain surprisingly underdeveloped. Where Morrison once packed her books with allegories that gave ample context to her characters and their strife, A Mercy has a prosaic monotony where precious little folklore and witchcraft lurk. Refreshing as it is that Morrison has presented an historical milieu in which different races coexist without racism—notably, at a time when so many Americans are eagerly waiting to elect Barack Obama—the narrative lacks the poignancy and piquancy that has put her on the pantheon of modern literature. Never did I expect that I would end up writing such criticisms of the beloved Toni Morrison. But what kind of reviewer would I be if I showed A Mercy too much mercy?

85A Log: My Miracle Lunch with Shell

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 15, 2008

So, yesterday, I had my fateful lunch with Shell at Miracle Grill, where we went over the first draft of 85A. I had the Blue-Corn Fried Chicken Tacos with chips and salsa and an iced tea. She had a quesadilla and a few glasses of water.

Before we got started, we celebrated her most recent freelance breakthrough. AARP, circulation 38 million, has accepted Shell’s pitch to write a profile on the graphic novelist who created the Joker. A career salvo, indeed. Way to go, Shell!

Her feedback on 85A was entirely constructive. She began by praising both the writing and the concept. Still, as I already knew, there’s a lot more work left for me to do on the book. An entire rewrite, actually.

Here’s what she had to say:

1. Start with An Action Scene: As it reads right now, the books starts with Seamus standing at the 85A bus stop, ruminating on the racism and violence in his pure-white middle class neighborhood. This is not as compelling as beginning with an action sequence.

(notice the Icarus wings)

(notice the Icarus wings)

I knew just what she meant. What leaped to mind immediately were the first lines of Toni Morrison’s Paradise:

“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest, they can take their time.”

Boom! Sucks you right in. Then, by and by, Morrison weaves in the history of Ruby, Oklahoma. Doesn’t spell it all out at once. She takes her time.

Similarly, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon begins with the North Carolina Mutual Insurance agent, Robert Smith (a black Icarus), leaping off the Mercy Hospital roof with a pair of homemade wings on the morning that Morrison’s protagonist, Milkman, is born.

So, yes, golden advice: start with a memorable action sequence.

2. Cut down on the F word: It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, in the first draft, every second to third word out of Seamus’ mouth is fuck. I wanted to show how dead-set he is on recreating the Johnny Rotten/Sid & Nancy experience in his barely pubescent Chicago life. Even I feared the fuck-repetitions were excessive. My fears proved true. I fully agree with Shell that it became more pesky than revealing after a while. As a matter of fact, she rightly discerned that, when the story really got moving, she saw that I wrote less and less fuck’s. Now, that’s not to say the fuck’s don’t have their place. In fact, they have a time-honored place. It’s just that the fuck’s are more effective when they’re more strategically positioned.

3. Imagery: Shell told me that I do a great job of vivifying the characters. What I need to do, once again, is to slow it down and include more sights, sounds, smells, and bodily sensations. Right now, it reads like I’m trying to get my main points down on paper – rushing to get to the point (a symptom of our ADD culture). But there needs to be more sensory input if I’m going to form a complete picture.

4. You See: There are times when Seamus will say things like “But, see, the thing is…” as if he’s speaking directly to the camera instead of soul searching.

A big challenge for me is that, while I want there to be action, I also want to show how Seamus is mostly solitary, idle and given to grandiose fantasies that have little basis in reality. How do you balance that with the kind of dynamism that keeps your reader reading?

I even picked up The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel for help. A sci-fi, fantasy writer named Tom Monteleone wrote it. Somewhere toward the middle of the book, he said something about how, every year, a glut of novels about alienated individuals trying to make sense of the big-bad world take up space on publishers’ desks, mostly before being shoved into the recycling bin. Monteleone then says, “If you’re planning to write that kind of novel, do yourself a favor. Don’t.”

I can sort of see the wisdom in that. Only, I feel like I have to write 85A, which fits the very description of the books he condemns. Plus, I have a long history of starting and stopping novels. Dammit, I’m gonna finish this one! Sorry, Mr. Monteleone.

The MFA Question

Enough ink has been spilled on the topic of whether an MFA in creative writing is absolutely necessary for someone who would like to write and publish novels. Still, I felt the need to ask Shell her thoughts on the matter since she got an MFA at Naropa University.

I never went to grad school. Some of our greatest writers never did either. On the other hand, many of our greatest writers – Flannery O’Connor, Michael Cunningham, Junot Diaz, and my newly discovered hero Joshua Furst – did come out of MFA programs.

Shell came down on the side of it not being necessary. You can learn some good things in MFA programs, she said. You can learn the art of the short story. No one is ever prepared for the novel, though. You just gotta go balls-out.

Some years ago, I picked up a book called The Portable MFA. I liked it when I worked with it, but it’s now sitting in one of my dusty book boxes. I should dig it out again. I’ve always been the kind who has learned best outside of confining environments like classrooms and offices. That’s not to say I’ve learned nothing in those settings, but I’ve learned far less in them than I have by doing my own reading, conducting my own dialogues, and following my own interests.

I’m extremely fortunate to have someone like Shell to give me this kind of feedback. With that, let me give Shell Fischer’s services another plug and send you to her website, where you can contact her:

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I got a novel to write.