Book Review

Jazz by Toni Morrison

redressing a gap in my reading

written may 1st 2020

A scandal and something I am honestly ashamed of: this is the first time I have ever read a novel by Toni Morrison.

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I never read Toni Morrison in my early twenties, which was when I read widely amongst contemporary novelists, and then when I (without ever deciding to do so) stopped reading much major-publisher literary fiction, Morrison’s name was a bit too mainstream for me to bother with. This was an error, as Jazz – which I don’t believe is even meant to be her best book – was a wonder.

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Jazz is modernist in its structure, but post-modernist in its use of a present/invisible/personalised but omniscient narrator. It explores sex and desire and mid-life crisis and anxieties about ageing and living in a city and living in the countryside and race and class and money and propriety and it does it all with a powerful, thunderous momentum that is ever present despite a weaving in and out of different time periods and locations and characters’ perspectives…

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The main “action” of the story is in 1926… but there is a lot that happens ten years before, twenty years before, thirty, forty, fifty years before; most of the novel takes place in New York, but the reader is also in other places, other times, dipping back to before the abolition of slavery (just) and amidst riots and protests and movements towards progress and towards personal development but also personal decline and personal failures… there are people discovering things about their past and their origins that are displeasurable to them, and there are, similarly, people who are discovering themselves in the present in ways that leave them unhappy or unfulfilled…

We read about moments of plot that are described quickly and clearly but are then revisited later in depth… we also read events that sound serious that are mentioned in the same casual manner as other events that are then focused upon but never actually turn out to be important and other things that seem close-to-trivial become central moments of extended sections and it’s impossible to know where and who and when the book will soar next and some of the threads that weren’t tugged were threads I had hoped would be tugged, but none of the threads that were tugged were anything other than spectacularly done.

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I know it’s redundant and unrevelatory for me to point out that Nobel Prize laureate (and numerous other award-winning novelist) Toni Morrison is brilliant, but Jazz is a structurally-inventive text that never feels like a structurally-inventive text and this is what makes it so fucking good.

Even though whenever I put the book down to go and drink water and/or have a weewee (I read most in a single sitting) I found myself aware of the book’s complexity, whenever I was in it, I forgot. Yes, I did sometimes have to read a transitionary paragraph twice, but whenever that happened, the fuck-up was with me, not the text: whenever I missed a change in location and/or time and/or perspective, going backwards in the text would always rapidly provide me with clarity and cohesion.

It’s exciting, reading a book whose methods and scenes are unpredictable, though not in terms of the plot: the whole narrative is summarised on the first page. Jazz is powerful story-telling for this very reason. The over-arching plot is a secondary tool to the real story – no, stories – which are being told.

Within this singular, shortish, novel, there are brief stories told about different lives during the period following the abolition of slavery and the initial failure of hope, leading towards a more hopeful period with a growing black middle class and some growth towards political representation.

Jean Toomer’s Cane is about a similar time (though written contemporaneously, rather than as historical fiction) and there are clear parallels between the themes being raised.

Widespread education makes a big difference to people’s opportunities, but the realities of racism and the conservative social values of the USA (and all other countries at that time and the vast majority, alas, still today) meant that said opportunities and said hopes were often unfulfillable.

Much as the mass university education of the working classes foisted on Western countries from the 1990s onwards has led to swathes of highly-educated, depressed bartenders, waiters and ushers, so too did mass literacy for millions of people who landowners and politicians wanted to continue using as uneducated, exploited labourers, caused unrest and unhappiness and – eventually – laws against discrimination being enshrined in law, despite no great structural inequalities being redressed.

In writing about the period of the Harlem Renaissance without writing about artists or musicians or poets, though, Morrison avoids the frustrating trope I often find with novels that explore “serious” issues: all of her characters here are “normal” people who have lived “normal” lives. Thank you.

The characters of this novel are not exceptional; no one is “gifted”, no one has a life that is unbelievable; though this is fiction, it feels far more real and far more important as a novel because none of its characters feel allegorical or generalised. All of the characters here are individuals, with the limits and the hopes and the desires of real, individual, people.

Jazz was a belter of a novel, all told, and as soon as the secondhand bookstores are open again, I’ll be picking up more Morrison!


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