x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Of human bondage

Books In Toni Morrison's new novel, 17th-century America plays host to the same oppression as left-behind Europe, writes Philip Weinstein.

The New World of <i>A Mercy</i> is disturbingly similar, in its bleakly rigid demarcations, to the Old World that had supposedly been escaped.
The New World of A Mercy is disturbingly similar, in its bleakly rigid demarcations, to the Old World that had supposedly been escaped.

In Toni Morrison's new novel, 17th-century America plays host to the same oppression as left-behind Europe, writes Philip Weinstein.


A Mercy Toni Morrison Chatto & Windus Dh102


It has been five years since Toni Morrison's last novel, Love, appeared to a chorus of mixed reviews. No living writer arouses greater expectations than Morrison, and ever since she won the Nobel Prize in 1993, none is more scrutinised. Love struck many as a bewildering departure. Lacking both the majestic historical sweep of Paradise (1999) and the searing analysis of slavery in Beloved (1987), the barely 200 pages of Love seemed more like a virtuoso extension of the hyper-cool, self-consciously arch narrative voice Morrison first employed in Jazz (1993). It read as a weave of brilliantly arresting sentences, embroidering a plot of 1940s Jersey shore hotels and affairs that no reader could easily follow.

Now appears Morrison's much awaited new novel, A Mercy - both as slender as Love and historically ambitious as Paradise. Set at the end of the 17th century in a plague and weather-ridden American north-east that ranges from Maryland (Catholic but king-owned) to Pennsylvania and further north, A Mercy delivers a multi-voiced mediation on the beauty and brutality of the entire New World experiment.

The novel asks the same questions Morrison first posed in her 1992 essay collection, Playing in the Dark: what did it mean to flee Europe for America's quasi-savage shores? What catharses or disasters occurred when the different players in the New World drama encountered each other? Catholics, Baptists, Anabaptists and Presbyterians edgily negotiate with each other here, but these differences are nothing compared to the four cardinal ones dominating this novel: those between natives and "Europes", indentured and wealthy, women and men, enslaved and free.

To make these differences indelible for the reader, Morrison renders them in the untranslated vernaculars of the players involved. Thus the novel opens abruptly, without even a chapter title: "Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark - weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more - but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth." A cryptic sentence: violence has occurred (the details of which will not become clear until novel's end), and the character responsible for the violence - a creature with human limbs but bared, animal-like teeth - is granted (so far) neither name nor motive. This opening typifies the most striking dimension of A Mercy's narrative procedure: its insinuated logic always lodges ahead of you, operative yet unexplained. You read continuously a step behind - yet compelled by patterns increasingly in play, tantalisingly on the verge of legibility. Rather than use one narrator to co-ordinate and clarify her materials, Morrison tells her story through the perspective of six different characters. The novel unfolds entirely by way of their localized takes on things. We register, in their own accents, only what each of them knows, feels, fears, remembers or desires. The 12 chapters follow one another harshly, without transition, as though the passage from one individual's inner world to another's were untranslatable - as indeed it is. Thus the reader is pressed to engage A Mercy as the New World's 17th-century populace had to engage each other: as impenetrably different beings thrown together in a common space. This arrangement becomes all the more disturbing when the empowered abuse (rape, beat, imprison, or torture) the powerless, unconcerned with differences in human orientation, with how it feels to be on the receiving end. Here is Lina, the native American servant, terrified that, now that her master (Sir) has died of the pox, Mistress might perish as well: "Don't die, Miss. Don't. Herself, Sorrow, a newborn and maybe Florens - three unmastered women and an infant out here, alone, belonging to no one, became wild game for anyone. None of them could inherit; none was attached to a church or recorded in its books. Female and illegal, they would be interlopers, squatters, if they stayed on after Mistress died, subject to purchase, hire, assault, abduction, exile." Lina grasps the New World's masculine prerogative, the ways in which its organising institutions - ecclesiastical and civic - blind themselves to the existence of women like her. The word "unmastered" denotes the opposite of what it first suggests: not gloriously free, but lamentably deprived of the protective "master". "Freedom" is the worst thing that could happen to these women; "freedom" leaves them legally exposed to repurchase, rape, kidnapping. Morrison uses a different single word to make a similarly ironic point elsewhere. When the possessor of an indentured male decides to "re-lease" him, the servant is not freed, but leased again. To a degree that few readers will anticipate, the New World of A Mercy emerges as vertical and stratified, not horizontal and open. It is a classed, gendered and racial world of the encumbered and the unencumbered - a place disturbingly similar, in its bleakly rigid demarcations, to the Old World that had supposedly been escaped. It is a man's world, and even the most sympathetic of Morrison's men - Jacob Vaark, Sir, the main male character - is unable to avoid the corruptions that unfetteredness dangles in his path. Determined to pursue the American dream, Jacob advances from orphanhood to unanticipated inheritance, from Jeffersonian farming to slave-exploiting rum production in Barbados and finally to building his third house - this time, the big house. His wife Rebekka begs him to desist. "What a man leaves behind is what a man is," he rebukes her. It comes as no surprise that Morrison has Jacob die of the pox before setting foot inside his mansion. A Mercy resembles Paradise in its intent to explore the darker consequences of the American dream of beginning anew, becoming free. But the shaping novel here is Morrison's masterpiece, Beloved, the haunting story of Sethe, a slave mother who, under unbearable pressure, murders her own daughter rather than allow her to be returned to slavery. Beloved brings slavery to the fore as the American tragedy lodged at the core of Morrison's imagination, and supplies the uncanny voice Morrison needed to probe it. Here is the ghost-child Beloved, speaking the almost unspeakably mutilated history of her people: "my face is coming I have to have it        I am looking for the join   I am loving my face so much . . . I want to join   she whispers to me . . . I reach for her   chewing and swallowing she touches me . . . she chews and swallows me   I am gone   now I am her face    my own face has left me   I see me swim away . . . a hot thing   I want to be the two of us   I want the join" This prose - the most lyrical Morrison has ever produced - conveys an unhealing trauma of abandonment. In floating phrases, free of syntactic bounding or logical sequence, it intimates something of slavery's extraordinary damage to black psychic cohesion. The black child has lost its mother - by violence, suicide, or sale - and cannot surmount this scarring. Faceless, her mother trapped in the waters with her reflected face, Beloved seeks only "the join", a renewal of the parent-child fusing that was burst asunder before individuation could occur. Orphaned inexplicably, she is unhinged - and dangerous. The orphaned daughter in A Mercy is named Florens. Her narrative launches the book and gives it its rhythm (six of the 12 chapters belong to her). Gradually we learn that, under pressure similar to what Sethe endured in Beloved - unable to protect both her infant boy and her older daughter - Florens's enslaved mother encouraged a white trader (Jacob Vaark) to take Florens away in payment for her owner's debt. This disowning emerges as early as the first page, when Florens imagines her mother "standing hand in hand with her little boy." It is a wound to Florens's psyche that cannot be borne, and Morrison makes sure that it replays - as memory, menace and dream - throughout her chapters. Here is the dream: "I dream a dream that dreams back at me ... I notice I am at the edge of a lake. The blue of it is more than sky, more than any blue I know ... I am loving it so, I can't stop. I want to put my face deep there ... I make me go nearer, lean over ... Right away I take fright when I see my face is not there. Where my face should be is nothing ... Where I ask, where is my face." Though the spacing here is normal, the syntax and style unmistakably reprise Beloved's uncanny mode of speech. Florens thus lets us glimpse (as Beloved did) an immense history of racial wounding. Through her we encounter another of Morrison's most abiding concerns: the plight of traumatically abandoned children. In A Mercy, the act of orphaning occurs repeatedly. It darkens the past of the native woman Lina, the crazed girl Sorrow, Jacob's bought white wife Rebekka, as well as the plight of the indentured and enslaved. Someone originary, parental, has disowned them all - had to or chose to - and they cannot bear the injury, nor their own helplessness when made to re-enact it as mothers surviving the death of their own infants. "Sorrow never forgot the baby breathing water every day, every night, down all the streams of the world." Lest you think this novel is relentlessly lyrical or poetic, let me assure you it is also suffused with Morrison's no-nonsense vocal authority. Here is Rebekka, Jacob's wife, reflecting on her husband's sexual timidity and his incapacity to imagine what she went through as an impoverished child in Europe, then in the hold of a ship with other indigents and prostitutes, making her way to her proprietor/husband: "He seemed shy at first, so she thought he had not lived with eight people in a single room garret; had not grown so familiar with small cries of passion at dawn that they were like the songs of peddlers. It was nothing like what Dorothea [a prostitute on the boat] had described or the acrobatics that made Lydia [another prostitute] hoot, nor like the quick and angry couplings of her parents. Instead she felt not so much taken as urged. 'My northern star', he called her." The beleaguered characters of A Mercy emerge as damaged but not necessarily undone. "Whatever obstacles they faced," Rebekka muses about the prostitutes encountered in the hold of the ship, "they manipulated the circumstances to their advantage and trusted their own imagination." "The only grace they could have," Baby Suggs tells her congregation in Beloved, "was the grace they could imagine." Glimpses, not plenary vision; an occasional measure of human generosity, not godlike deliverance. At novel's end, one of the indentured men, fearing worse troubles to come as Jacob's family splinters after the master's death, reflects on something said to him by a preacher of his childhood. "Remembering how the curate described what existed before Creation, Scully saw dark matter out there, thick, unknowable, aching to be made into a world." Primordial dark matter, there before the Creation: much of A Mercy explores the texture and tensions of 17th-century America as a dark region in several senses pre-Independent. Against such darkness Morrison envisages nothing so grand as divine mercy, but instead, now and then, the unpredictable human gesture of "a mercy" - a shoulder to lean on, a home to sleep in, a master stirred to care. This slender novel of 167 pages, laden with characters whose stories are launched but not fully developed, frustrates and compels. Its promise is immense: gestures aching to be made into a world. Philip Weinstein is a professor of English at Swarthmore College and the author of What Else But Love? The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison