Toni Morrison's devastating new novel, Edmund White's Dickensian romp, a new novella from Steve Martin and the rest of October's best fiction.
Our first pick: “Love” by Toni Morrison
“Where’s the gain in setting fire to the nest you live in,” asks a woman known only as L, about two-thirds of the way through Toni Morrison’s new novel, “if you have to live in the ashes for 50 years?”
The question, like so much of the discourse in this brief, dense and devastating book, is rhetorical. There’s no end to the bitter, pointless and destructive things the people in “Love” will do to each other in the name of love. If they have to live among the ruins themselves, hey, at least it’s a world they created. The larger question — that of why the network of people surrounding a defunct beach resort and its dead patriarch, who are linked to each other by blood, by money and, yes, by love, can’t stop acting like a pack of angry, wounded animals — is never quite asked, let alone answered. But the clues, in this masterly work whose scale is much bigger than it appears to be, are everywhere.
Morrison may not believe in original sin, in the old-fashioned theological sense, but she surely believes in really old sin. Like one of her clearest literary ancestors, William Faulkner, Morrison also believes that the past is not past and the dead are not dead. (She may also suspect that the demonic forces that L calls “Police-heads,” who live in the ocean and “harm loose women” and “eat disobedient children,” are not entirely imaginary.)
Bill Cosey, the long-dead proprietor of the deluxe beach hotel in an unnamed Southern state that attracted affluent blacks from all over the country during its Depression heyday, was a generous, stylish and charismatic man, a feudal pioneer of African-American entrepreneurship — and also something of a tyrant and a monster. Years after his death, in the novel’s present tense, his widow and his granddaughter (it takes a while to sort out the relationships in Morrison’s layered, cumulative and demanding narrative) are trapped together in mutual hatred, living in a house he left to one of them. But nobody is sure which one of them; Cosey’s will is a disjointed scribble in the margins of a 1950s hotel menu, and his reference to “my sweet Cosey child” might mean either of them — or someone else entirely. (There is, of course, a missing and mysterious Cosey mistress.) To make matters ever so much more tormented, his widow Heed (her full given name, marvelously, is Heed the Night) and her stepgranddaughter Christine are the same age and were passionate friends as little girls, until — well, you get the general idea.
Into Heed and Christine’s near-psychotic household come two young people, both in some ways innocent but both already marked, in ways they can scarcely apprehend, by the ghost of Bill Cosey. (And, less directly but just as inevitably, by the ghosts that haunted Cosey himself — his father, known locally as Dark, built a fortune by informing on local blacks to the white police.) One is Romen, a muscular 14-year-old who lives with his upstanding grandparents in the middle-class community of Silk, where the Cosey women also live. Much of “Love” is a compassionate exploration of Romen’s struggle to decide what kind of man he is likely to become, in a society whose models of African-American masculinity offer thuglife rappers on one hand and Bill Cosey on the other.
The other, though, may be Morrison’s finest creation in this book. A wild girl from a dirt-poor community called only “the Settlement” who was recently released from prison, she calls herself Junior, although her real name is something else. She shows up in a miniskirt and no underwear on one of the coldest days Silk has ever seen, mesmerizing Romen’s grandfather in his driveway with her goosebump-free exposed flesh. Junior seems familiar to everybody, but neither the characters nor Morrison herself can pin her down. Everybody in “Love” is obsessed with Bill Cosey, but Junior hears his voice, smells his cologne, sees his well-manicured hand on the doorknob. Like Cosey himself, Junior seems to be an apparition from the realms of sex and power, a seductive, heartless demon conjured up from the dark places of American history.
Some people, who probably haven’t read Morrison in the first place, have a tendency to dismiss her as a propagandist, a victimologist, a knee-jerk uplifter of the race. As a Nobel laureate and the most celebrated black writer in history, she makes a large and satisfying target. But while “Love” is indeed, in some large sense, a novel about the damaging legacy of slavery and racism, there is nothing simplistic anywhere in it. In no way does Morrison provide ideological excuses for Bill Cosey or the warring women around him, or apologize for the rape and murder, the petty torment and the money-grubbing and the malicious arson fires and the corruption that have poisoned the Cosey resort and the Cosey world.
Along the way, though, she does depict a lost kingdom, an all-but-forgotten place and way of life, in typically peerless language and in tones that are not so much bittersweet as biblical. As L, the hotel’s former cook and one of the only “Cosey women” to escape the place with body and soul intact, watches over the proceedings like a spectral presence, and as Romen’s grandparents plod along in their ordinary, respectable life, Morrison even suggests that it’s possible to outlast a force as reckless and as destructive as love.
– Andrew O’Hehir
More Related Stories
- What's 2013's "Gone Girl"? Here are this summer's best reads
- Fox executive behind "Does Someone Have to Go?" leaving the network
- Hillary Clinton memoir shows up on Amazon
- A brief history of Jennifer Weiner's literary fights
- First look: Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard shine in "The Immigrant”
- No women allowed: Summer music festivals are dudefests, again
- Vivica A. Fox tapes anti-gun PSA in front of poster for her movie
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Mariah Carey's rambling, cursing, dress-popping "Good Morning America" concert
- Fox's new reality TV show threatens regular people with unemployment
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Steamy lesbian-sex movie has Cannes abuzz
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- New York chef serves up eight-course meal around "Arrested Development" jokes
- HLN: Jodi Arias "pleading for her life" got us a ratings win!
- Michael Ian Black on Maron feud: He "considered me a poseur"
- Chekhov's story mirrors Russia's own
- Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina denied parole
- Joe Francis apologizes for calling jury "retarded"
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11