Review: Beloved

May 10, 2011 Comments Off on Review: Beloved

I read this book because my roommate Brittany raved about it and it seemed to be an Important Book; I bought it used six years ago and only just now read it. Let me tell you, I had no idea what I was getting into. I had no idea that the first half of it is a straight-up ghost story, and few things are as scarring to me as unexpected ghost stories. The first few chapters I felt like a toddler being hit with a tire iron—I was jarred and hurt and frightened and confused, and I approached the rest of the book with fear and hesitation, waiting to be brained again. But actually, the horror of the very beginning seemed forced to me, and much of the book exhibits the kind of fierce insistence you see in people who were once scorned and rejected (or whose people were), and have now found their place in the world, and keenly feel the difference. It’s not that you can’t understand the feeling, but it’s harsh to read.

The back stories of the main characters, who were almost all slaves on the same plantation—at least the parts of the story that come out right away—make such an effort to be horrifying and unbelievable that they’re a little absurd and almost comical. The story is ridiculous in a way you’re not allowed to question; oh, you think this is ridiculous? I guess your people never knew real suffering, is the implication. And crazy stuff happens all the time in real life. But in a novel it’s too much; in addition to the slight absurdity of the events is the accompanying inability to have real sympathy for it. I suppose Morrison might have intended it in sort of a fable/folk-tale way, deliberately skipping out on the realism, except that the rest of the book is sort of magical realist, and makes you believe in ghosts and omens and clairvoyance in the real world, and so you’re already primed to take everything literally. The bigger problem is, I don’t care about the back story. It might be because of how it was introduced, but nowhere in the book does Morrison paint the characters—mostly Paul D, the main character’s lover—in such a way that I think sympathetically, gosh, I wonder what happened to him. Which is another problem with trying to make the beginning horrific: then when you try to tell the rest of the story, the reader will think, I get it already, the guy’s scarred, bad stuff happened to him, he’s had a rough life, &c. I get it. The trouble with Paul D is that he’s not really important to the story. I mean, he is, but he’s one of those functional characters that you get the feeling the author doesn’t really love. But she keeps dragging him back in and I find myself not caring.

The writing is wonderful in places—Morrison’s very good but sometimes when internal monologues go on for pages the dialect starts to sound a little strained, which is unfair because she usually does that well, too. And the parts where she doesn’t bother with dialect are really good, even the one weird stream-of-consciousness chapter about being dead, which could go so very wrong in other hands.

I do, however, object to the organization of the book. It begins with horror but doesn’t spell out the whole story, then drops what Morrison clearly thinks are tantalizing tidbits about the rest of it for something like 150 pages. The trouble is, you figure out the main plot point long before the main character does, or even before the author’s done hinting at it, and after that what’s not boring is just confusing. The back story that is gradually revealed simply isn’t that great. The ghost story, the one set in the present, is the interesting one! And you want to know what happens with that, but you keep getting interminable chapters about being a slave, and how they tried to escape, and what went wrong, and what their lives were like before and after, and there’s no real plot to that part, it’s just one of those oh-how-my-people-have-suffered parts, just the author’s grudge blowing off steam. The book would be a lot slimmer, and a lot cleaner, if most of that was cut out, or said concisely straight out. For example, they keep hinting at how poor Sixo died, and making it out to be some huge deal, when he is actually a very minor character—and I’ll save you the suspense: he’s caught trying to escape and the owners try to burn him alive before they end up shooting him. There. One sentence. It wouldn’t have changed the course of the story in the least to have got that right out in the open right away. Why hint at it for 200 pages? If Morrison had such a crush on his story, maybe she should have written a prequel where she could focus fairly on it. By the time this stuff starts coming out, we’re already coming to the climax of the ghost story, and the reader is impatient. It’s not even prolonging the suspense, although that may have been part of Morrison’s intent; it’s the difference between pausing for effect and taking a break to go to the bathroom. It’s actually a break, not a buildup.

By the time I finished the book, I was enjoying the story, but the plot structure didn’t help me out at all. It comes on too strong, numbs you so that even the idea of someone killing her own children doesn’t faze you, and then trickles out in fits and starts, interspersing the good parts, and the story you care about, with dull back story. Aside from that, the premise is really interesting (and frightening), and the writing is usually superb. I’m not sure which of these things outweighs the other. I ended up with mixed feelings about it, and I’m not sure it deserves its exalted status as an Important Book.

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