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Utopia Lost and Found

[whitespace] Toni Morrison
By Toni Morrison
Knopf; 320 pages; $25 cloth

Two dreams of community collide in Toni Morrison's latest tale

By Michelle Goldberg

TONI MORRISON'S NEW novel, Paradise, a tale of two flawed attempts at utopia, bursts with three decades of the author's obsessions. Woven into this sprawling story about a pious all-black Oklahoma town and a neighboring mansion full of runaway women is a story of mother love and infanticide, as in Beloved, and a meditation on the hidden histories of black towns, echoing Song of Solomon. But what dominates Paradise is the tension that animated Sula--the interdependence and combustion between an upright, devout patriarchy and a loose, wanton freedom.

In Paradise, the division builds on itself in layer after layer of the dense narrative until it takes on a religious scope and intensity. Many of the novel's ideological battles are fought in competing church sermons between the stern, conservative Methodist Reverend Pulliam and the progressive Baptist Reverend Misner. What's at stake in these debates is the future of Ruby, an all-black town settled by descendants of another all-black town called Haven.

Haven's founders--whom Ruby residents call the Old Fathers--were ex-slaves who became leaders during Reconstruction before being driven from the South by whites. Ruby is ruled by twin brothers, Deacon and Steward, grandchildren of Haven's founders, who see their town deteriorating from such "outrages" as daughters who won't leave their beds and brides vanishing on their honeymoons.

The men need a scapegoat, and they find it in the Convent, an abandoned Catholic school that becomes a refuge for lost and damaged women. If Ruby is a paradise of order and safety, the Convent is a heaven of acceptance, a place where "every true thing is okay."

One of the women, Mavis, had her twin babies suffocate when she left them in a closed car while she went grocery shopping. Another is an alcoholic named Connie who grew up in the Convent and was left alone when the last of the nuns died. Others have fathers or boyfriends in prison and histories of rape, desertion and self-mutilation.

At times, the story gets too big, full of too many characters and their complicated histories and too many hints of events that are never revealed. But Morrison's writing is so gorgeous, so suffused with both rough domestic richness and ethereal grace, that Paradise is enchanting even when the plot is elusive.

book cover ON THE FIRST PAGE OF the book, the men of Ruby arrive at the Convent one day in 1976 armed with guns, robe, mace and handcuffs to kill the women, whom they regard as "throwaway people that sometimes blow back into the room after being swept out the door." As the novel develops, though, the men's motives are shown to be even more craven and hypocritical. One wants the Convent land, others were spurned by Convent women or have secrets that they don't trust the women to keep.

Although Morrison clearly condemns the men, she is also achingly sympathetic to the dream of Ruby, the attempt to build a self-sufficient and spiritually solid home where neither white people nor the rapidly changing world can touch them.

Ruby's isolation, though, changes the townspeople into what the original men of Haven were fleeing. They had been turned away from other black settlements for being too dark, and their story takes on a kind of biblical power in Ruby. In one eerie scene, their history, which they call the Disallowing, is conflated with the birth of Jesus in a Sunday School Christmas Pageant.

The lesson Ruby's leaders take from the legend isn't tolerance; instead, they invert the bigotry, rejecting anyone besides the blackest blacks. They resist politics, integration, anything from the outside world. Steward even calls Thurgood Marshall "a stir-up Negro."

It almost seems that, like the ghost of Sethe's daughter in Beloved, Haven's reincarnation is debased from the start. Morrison illustrates this with her emphasis on a community open-air oven that was carried from one town to the other.

In Haven, the oven was for town-wide dinners and socializing. In Ruby they have stoves, but the oven remains a kind of fetish, a symbol of their forefathers. Arguments over its meaning nearly split the town in half: "A utility became a shrine (cautioned against not only in scary Deuteronomy but in lovely Corinthians II as well) and, like anything that offended Him, destroyed its own self."

The political and philosophical issues that Morrison takes on are fascinating, but often the book is more intriguing than it is moving. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's too bad that Ruby's stringentness doesn't leave room for the eccentrics, loners and losers who populated the towns in Morrison's other works.

Sula is unequaled at rendering the joyous complicity and passion of female friendship, but the relationships between the Convent women in Paradise are a bit vague and abstract. Toward the end, though, when the women are painting their home with totems of their sorrow and their difficult pasts, they create a religion more vital than Ruby's stifling Christianity, and there are small miracles both in the narrative and in Morrison's elegiac prose.

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From the February 26-March 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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