Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Catching Up With An Old Friend: Lindsay Calhoun on Paradise

Catching Up With An Old Friend is a series in which readers, authors, and other bookish people share their favorite books. Read more about the project or see all the past entries. To participate, e-mail


Today's favorite book is from Lindsay Calhoun, a nonprofessional book lover who lives in Washington, DC. She is eternally grateful to come from a family that loves to read, and would especially like to thank her great-grandmother, Nina Hatfill, for making both reading and education such an important part of the lives of her entire family.

Paradise is the final book in what Toni Morrison unofficially dubbed her “love” trilogy, and like all great finales, it begins the most provocatively: “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” With this opening line Morrison intrigues her readers and keeps them pressing forward to find answers to the many questions the first chapter raises – who is the white girl? Who is the shooter? And what has prompted this scene of violence? Paradise is a thematic continuation of the central idea in Morrison’s first and only short story, “Recatatif” – without visual clues, how do you identify race in literature? Can you tell if you’re reading the thoughts of a white or black woman? Does race matter less when you’re reading words on a page rather than interacting with someone in person?

Of course, racial representation matters deeply to Morrison (as it should to any scholar of US literature), and this novel is not here to convince the reader that race is inconsequential to identity. We are given, in great detail, the racial makeup of all but four characters in the text. Among these four – Mavis, Gigi, Seneca, and Pallas – is the white girl victimized in the opening line. They, along with a fifth woman, Connie, inhabit a mansion nicknamed the Convent by locals, seventeen miles outside the small, all-black town of Ruby, Oklahoma. On my first read of Paradise, unlocking the identity of the white girl was paramount to my enjoyment of the novel – I wanted to unveil all that the novel had to offer and somehow master the text. It was the last book I read for my last literature course as an undergraduate, and when discussion of Paradise wrapped up, I filed it away, confident that I had an answer to the mystery.

Nine months later, as a Master’s student in literature, I wasn’t so sure. It was on my second reading of the novel that I realized that although the opening line invites the reader to focus on themes of race, gender, and violence, these are offshoots of broader issues at the heart of Paradise. Morrison has something much bigger in mind – most notably, revealing the danger of selective readings of history, particularly histories that are rooted in pain or trauma, and how privileging the past can stifle the present. Within the limits of one small town, Morrison tackles virtually all the major themes of 20th century American fiction – not only race and gender, but also religion, war, power, capitalism, diaspora, history, violence, segregation, patriarchy, American politics and empire, memory, and finally, the art of storytelling itself. The very kitchen sink-ness of such a novel ensures that Paradise ultimately cannot succeed with the polish of Morrison’s more focused novels, like the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning Beloved or her most recent work, A Mercy. Yet it is the flaws in this sprawling, ambitious novel that has me returning time and time again to look closer – to leave no adjective or description unscrutinized.

Morrison’s prose is magnificent – it echoes the sermonizing, frantic style of William Faulkner. Plot-wise Paradise borrows elements of magical realism from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and shares Faulkner’s emphasis on history and memory. Yet despite the authorial influences, the style is unmistakably Morrison’s own. In its grandness, its ostentatious nature, it runs a very thin line between brilliance and pomposity. But for me, the rhetorical grandeur always manages to evoke awe, rather than leave me rolling my eyes. Such a rhapsodic description as, “Unbridled by Scripture, deafened by the roar of its own history, Ruby …was an unnecessary failure. How exquisitely human was the wish for permanent happiness, and how thin human imagination became trying to achieve it,” undoubtedly borders on heavy-handed, but succeeds in that it refuses the reader passivity. The characters’ impassioned ruminations urge you to care about the future of Ruby and its townspeople. The richness of the world Morrison creates through her elaborate descriptions, or even the occasional unsettling of grammar within a sentence, imbue the text with a weightiness that its multitude of themes demands.

The novel is broken into six segments, each named for a female character, in which the history of Ruby is revealed through the perspectives of several townspeople, while the stories of the titular women themselves – all six outsiders in some way to Ruby’s insular community – unfold. The narrative reveals the women’s histories, including what prompted them to seek refuge at the Convent, as well as the far-reaching, at times painful history of the town itself. The more that is revealed, the closer the stories of the women and the townspeople inch toward collision. Like many of Morrison’s novels, the narrative tracks a circular pattern – we both begin and end with the shooting described in the first line. What comes between may or may not answer any questions raised by the initial scene of violence. At the heart of both the stories of the Convent women and the Ruby townspeople are deep traumas.

Paradise was not as critically successful as some of Morrison’s other works, probably because tackling so large a topic as all of US history through the microcosm of an all-black town in the middle of nowhere is too much to ask of one novel. And yet the compelling way Morrison attempts it – with the provocative nature of beautifully described violence, the sublimity of her rhetoric, the sympathy with which she crafts even her least sympathetic character, and with the power, or as she might put it, the roar of history (true history, not just the history of the victors) on her side, this novel is impossible to ignore. I love this novel not despite its flaws, but for them. To create a piece of art that can so viscerally connect to the painful history of both racism and sexism in the US while remaining a unique and eloquently written piece of fiction is an extraordinary feat. For a work that can be read again and again and interpreted differently each time (after all, who is the white girl mentioned in that very first line? What really happens in both the opening and closing chapters?), Paradise is unparalleled. I just finished it for the fifth time in less than four years. I’m sure I’ll be back again.

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