What to Read

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.

Topics: Books,

What to Read

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

Our next pick: From the author of “Snow Falling on Cedars,” a tale of a traumatized girl who meets the Virgin Mary in the woods

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>