In her usual denial of the nuts and bolts of reality, the In-House Editor boldly declares herself a cougar (when obviously she’s nothing if not a petite lap panther) while I finally, after over two weeks being crushed beneath the unstoppable spearhead of the Genghis Khan of flu viruses, can take a deep breath and not break down in an aching, coughing spasm. So it is with the (slightest) renewed vigor that I continue my list of things I found interesting and, possibly, motivating.
I’m going to limit this month’s list to only two entries, not because they’re all I’ve got—after all, in my pulmonary fugue, I could do little more than read books and watch movies—but because they’re each, in their own ways, new constellations (in fact, embarrassingly new constellations) in my personal literary cannon.
1. Toni Morrison
I remember some years ago reading Beloved and being absolutely floored, if not by the emotional impact of the novel, then by the certain knowledge that Morrison wrote one of the best (if not the best) American ghost story to date. (Which, if you’ll recall, is kinda how American literature started: folks getting freaked out by the spooky-ass New England woods and the obvious devils who lurked there. The obvious deduction, then, would be to drop the qualifier and call Beloved simply the best America novel.) I also remember the prose being more than a little opaque, something I had to labor through, which if I’d still been in the throes of my James Joyce crush, would have been a great appeal, but with said crush having waned, left me feeling exempt from the novel’s full impact.
Before I go any further, I need to make it clear: I was dead wrong on this last point.
But it was this wrong assumption (“Morrison’s prose is opaque”) that kept me from reading more of her work. Which means I deprived myself—both as a reader, a developing writer, and a human—some of the best work written in the English language for, what…over ten years! What a childish asshole! I could go off on this point ad nauseum, how so many of my favorite artists (and, for that matter, people) I’d originally dismissed and disparaged via some snarky wrongheadedness, but that’s not interesting. And it also is not Toni Morrison.
There’s a specific literary mastery you only now and then find, when the prose reads so effortlessly, so naturally, that you readily come to the false conclusion “this seems so easy.” Easy to read. Easy to write. No fancy tricks. No pedantic allusions. Just the spring-water clarity of words on paper. (Right. Because clarity is easy.) This is the sense I got while sinking into Morrison’s work through my sickness. Sula. Song of Solomon. The Bluest Eye. A Mercy. Home. Each of these novels unfolds in what would appear to be an unhurried, intuitive rate and rhythm that never once shake your trust in the author’s intent. Or I should say: I never lost trust. Again and again in these novels, it’d strike me that I had no idea where the story was going, where it was leading me, and instead of being pissed about it—feeling that jerked-around sense of aimless clever that too often permeates post-modern and post-grad fiction—I felt pleased, felt able to relax into the story, able to put aside being a writer and instead just be a reader basking in the awe of a master at her best.
Here’s another way of looking at it: in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, there is one scene where, in a single uncut shot, the actor Toshiro Mifune (playing a ronin samurai) chases down and blades nine attacking (then fleeing) men in ten seconds. In the film, it is a cool act of ass kicking that quite clearly demonstrates the balance of power early in the storyline. But as a feat enacted in our second-by-second reality, it is a breathtaking spectacle of a moving, human body at its finest.
What Mifune can do in ten seconds, Morrison does again and again through nearly fifty years of novel writing. Toni Morrison is a samurai.
2. Louise Erdrich
Since college, I have enjoyed Erdrich’s short fiction whenever I’ve chanced upon it in a magazine or anthology or textbook. But it was only in the past month that I finally began reading her novels. And as with Morrison, I’ve been reluctant to stop. (I have, in fact, been intentionally alternating between the two, wedging in some other author—Don DeLillo, Daniel Handler, Alice Walker—to avoid total immersion as well as prolong the affair). Reading Future Home of the Living God in just a few marathon sittings left me thoroughly rattled: for days afterward, I kept mixing up details of the novel—wherein pregnancy becomes a government industry leaving no woman with sovereignty over her body—with the reality of our world. The sad and subtle difference between the two being “this horror is happening” versus “this horror isn’t happening yet.” Victim to such successful reshaping of reality, how could I not continue reading through her back catalog?
Lucky for me, Erdrich has an impressive list of novels under her belt. And while none of them has again so far destroyed the membrane between my perceived notions of reality and the imaginary, neither has any attempted to do so. Instead, in much the same way that Morrison explores the dimensions of black life in the United States (primarily in the South), Erdrich explores the lives of—both historical and contemporary—Native Americans, specifically the Ojibwe of Minnesota and the Dakotas. Which, in both instances, could rightly be a playlist of one brutality after another (and without doubt, with both Morrison and Erdrich, that brutality is present and accounted for). But such single-minded storytelling would preclude every other aspect of human experience: boredom, jealousy, the twin wonder and absurdity of the naked body, being hungry then being full, winning an argument or a leg race or a pointless bet, braiding hair, puzzling over the face in the mirror. The stories are of a culture and geography very different from my own. But never does it feel unfamiliar. Never does it feel beyond my capacity to comprehend. Which is to say: these details are not my details. But they are part of the infinitely expanding, infinitely rich definition of what it means to be a human.
And again, with such natural, associative storytelling, Erdrich’s novels have allowed me to enjoy the simple pleasure of just being a reader. Relaxing into a story. Letting it wash over and through me. Yet still, now and then, a line or phrase will rise above the others to stop me in my tracks, read again, take out my notebook and scratch it down. Such as this one from Four Souls:
Pain took our minds off the greater pain that was the mistake that we still existed.
Or this one, from The Plague of Doves:
The wind will blow. The devils rise. All who celebrate shall be ghosts. And there will be nothing but eternal dancing, dust on dust, everywhere you look.
I’m not entirely sure what these novels are doing to me. But I like it. Even in this most passive form of reading, I’m aware that a key is turning somewhere inside this fevered and over-sized skull. I just hope I’m paying enough attention to make good on this quiet kind of lesson. Which leads me back to Toni Morrison and her first novel, The Bluest Eye:
There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.
As always, thank you for reading, to thank you for sharing, to thank you for understanding that my reticence right now to hug or shake hands or even stand within your arm’s reach has nothing to do with you and everything to do with my traitorous, viral lungs. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for all these pretty blue gel caps that are helping save me from a gurgling death. If you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and, in fact, encouraged, to save me from myself. And if your view of the future looks too dim for any kind of subscription, consider making a one-time donation and getting the equivalent rewards for one month.
You are the peach to my pit.