Toni Morrison Is Not Your Grandmother: On the Explosive, Alienating ‘God Help the Child’

morrison_childIt is a strange fact of Toni Morrison’s career that no matter how viscerally — in at times the clearest and most instinctive sentences in narrative prose — she lays bare the sexual brutality and racial hatred that undergirds American life, she will still be expected to play the part of grandmotherly sage. In her recent, necessary, even recuperative piece “The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison,” Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah momentarily chides herself for wanting as much from the only living American Nobel Prize in Literature laureate. “I had spent hours with Morrison, accosting her with questions, thinking about her, observing her,” Kaadzi wrote. “Suddenly I felt greedy and excused myself in a hurry. How silly of me to think that she should provide me with an answer to the old woman’s riddle, to not see all the ways Morrison has given of herself.”

The same sentiment is expressed in Kara Walker’s New York Times review of Morrison’s new novel God Help the Child, the first of her works to be set wholly in the present. After a brief survey of the book, one meant to demonstrate that it is not up to the standard of much of the author’s previous work, Walker unbags the cat:

I was left hungering for warmth. I wanted to be lured even deeper into that awful golden landscape. I wanted to tug at the sleeve of the storyteller and say, “Yes, yes, I know all that, I get the message, but the story is the thing; tell me the part about the trees again, and don’t forget the sunlight.”

But Toni Morrison is not here to comfort you. This fact is suitably ironized by the presence, in God Help the Child, of Sweetness, the exculpatory yet grandmotherly voice that bookends the novel. Even now — especially now — on second reading, it’s startling to encounter the book’s opening lines. “It’s not my fault,” Sweetness explains. “So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened.” You’d think that Sweetness was preemptively defending herself in light of the stream of disasters about to befall her daughter, Lula Ann or “Bride,” but she is rather doing the opposite. The thing that isn’t her fault: her newborn daughter’s skin is black, “Midnight black, Sudanese black,” although Sweetness is light-skinned, “high yellow,” and so is Bride’s father. And, fittingly, this opening rejection, by her father, who leaves the family, and her mother, who rarely expresses love or warmth, is the original sin that sets Bride’s fall in motion.

In many ways Morrison’s most fitful book — not at all the chamber piece described by Michiko Kakutani — God Help the Child brings together several voices that swirl around Bride and her Job-lite endurance of personal disaster. There is of course Sweetness, but there is also Brooklyn, Bride’s duplicitous white friend with dreadlocks; Rain, a nearly feral child raised by hippies Bride meets while convalescing from a car wreck; Sofia, a white teacher who Bride had locked up after perjuriously accusing her of child molestation decades earlier; and a third person narrator who exacerbates loose ends as much as ties them together.

The plot itself is simple but crazy. Bride’s lover, Booker, has recently and inexplicably left her, precipitating a personal crisis that plays out over the course of the novel. To make matters worse, Bride has decided to shower Sofia with gifts and money upon her release from prison as a mea culpa for having her locked up. When this results in a vicious beating, Bride is forced to take time away from her lucrative day job at Sylvia, Inc., a cosmetics company where she is starting a new line. In the interim, her annoying friend Brooklyn, who at first thinks that Bride has been the victim of an attempted rape, “helps” her along, mostly by taking over her job duties and throwing her a party. From there, Bride’s life unravels: her pubic hair disappears and she stops having her period — two events that are less surrealist modifiers than indications of psychosomatic violence caused to the body by racial rejection. When, in disarray, Bride sets out to “track” Booker — a verb that is used strangely in the novel, more than once — she wrecks her car somewhere in rural California, where she is rescued by a hippie couple and their strange non-child, Rain (see above). This brief but baldly human encounter strikes me as Morrison’s novelistic arrangement of an often missed political opportunity — a point of intersection between atomistic cultures.

When we meet Bride, she is materialistic, superficial, and plainly and weirdly modern. After her visit with the unsentimental hippies Evelyn and Steve, she is somewhat less so, but this has more to do with her encounter with Rain, a child who conjures her repressed feelings of racial rejection at the hands of Sweetness. Weeks later, Bride pushes forward in her search for Booker, an undertaking that will both heal and wound her further, especially after she comes to terms with his own traumatic history.

This is all to say that God Help the Child is Morrison’s strangest and most alienating novel. But so what? Contemporary American life, having thoroughly imbibed its own mediatization, is more like a Lifetime movie than we’d care to admit — and yet more racist and brutal. While reading Morrison’s book, I couldn’t help but remember Nathanael West’s injunction against orderly American fiction. “In America fortunes do not accumulate, the soil does not grow, families have no history,” West wrote. “Leave slow growth to the book reviewers, you only have time to explode.” Written as a series of detonations, Morrison’s new novel has no intention of grandmothering you into a comfortable world. Underwritten by the stuff of contemporary American life: in the end, even its title explodes.