Saturday, November 29, 2008

Toni Morrison's A Mercy; Or, That's Mr. Misanthrope to You

I spent much of Thanksgiving Day reading Toni Morrison's novel A Mercy, an advanced reader's edition that I had since September and which I'd attempted twice without completion. Morrison's strengths are language, imagination, and wisdom; and her ambition is to deliver the truth, whether it hurts or heals, but there is solace to be found in her words, in her vision. Fundamental to Toni Morrison's novel A Mercy is an act of sacrifice and imaginative sympathy that looks like cruelty: and in that misunderstanding is a sabotage of character and an inclination toward submission. A Mercy is, like many books, about perception and interpretation, about language, but it is also, very much, about the split roots of the American past--of Europeans rich and poor, of native Americans befriended, exploited, and maligned, and of Africans who are touched with brutal hands, whether they are desired or despised. It is a book about civility and savagery, intelligence and stupidity, love and hatred: life and death. It also concerns a theme that may be as timeless: what children do not understand about parents, especially their acts as well as feelings within the treacherous churnings of history (thoughtful concern can look like indifference).

In A Mercy is a European immigrant farmer who assembles a homestead that seems remarkably free for all, in the age of slavery and indentured servitude, but which is based too much on will and whim to survive his illness or death. Weaknesses are exposed--and religion steps in to offer morality in the place of intimate knowledge, mutual respect, or even practical sense; and it is a pious and wicked religion which begins to make both love and work very difficult.

It may be a footnote, but this is one of the few instances in Toni Morrison's work when homosexuality is recognized as impulse and relationship, in presenting two male farm workers who work well with others and have a sexual relationship between themselves. It is as if Morrison is attempting every reconciliation in this book; and offering hope for the present by showing the shared tasks of the past.

The book contains a lot of details, emotional, sensuous and historical; and there were a few times when I felt too much the presence of research or thought Morrison's summaries were too overt, but, on the whole, I found the book one of mastery, an important and interesting interpretation. Toni Morrison has enlarged her own literary authority again, and added something that may be essential to our understanding of the past.