Beloved has been more quickly and thoroughly canonized than any other modern book, so and because it suffers from two curses. The first is the curse of the classic itself, what you might call the Moby-Dick curse: everyone read it too early so no one liked it. It's not exactly difficult (nor exactly is Moby-Dick
), but it's not easy either, and a high schooler forced to read it is going to suspect it of being good for her, which is no fun for anyone. When I polled my bookish friends about this book, I got a lot of "Er...I read that 20 years ago and it was probably okay," when I didn't get silence. In fact, I got more tepid comments about this book than any other I can remember, including Moby-Dick and even Sound and the Fury,
which is immeasurably more of a pain in the ass.
The second curse - the curse that leads to the first curse - is that it's about slavery. It was canonized because it's very good, but also because it's the best novel everyone could agree on that was by a black person and about slavery. That's not Toni Morrison's fault, it's her credit. But because we in America are obsessed with race - with the legacy of slavery - and because we all feel pretty shitty about it, in many different ways - any book about slavery is going to come under fire forever and ever. Mark Twain probably knew when he wrote Huck Finn
that it would never be talked about outside of the context of race; Toni Morrison most certainly did. When she wrote Beloved, she knew that every asshole in the country would take swings at it for as long as it lives, which looks like it's going to be a very long time.
So. Toni Morrison, a brilliant author at the height of her powers, writes a savage, no-holds-barred epic about the horrors of slavery, and everyone talks about its subject instead of its writing. Is it brilliant? Yes! It is brilliant. Does it deserve to be canonized, or is it in part canonized because it fills a niche that we needed filled? And the answer is yes to both.
What astonished me about Beloved is how fully in control of the narrative Morrison is. The way she hints at events, and then slowly returns to flesh them out again and again, from different perspectives. She sets up like ten different mysteries - what, to take a minor one, happened to Sixo? And she resolves each one in turn. Sixo gets the wonderful last line, "Seven-O! Seven-O!" as he smolders. This is mastery on a puzzle level that's Nabokovian.
And Morrison walks this tightrope throughout the book: she absolutely indicts slavery, she cudgels us with its reality - the incident this book is based on is real - but she stops just short of punishing us for reading the book. (Unlike her canonized peer, Cormac McCarthy,
who is all about punishment.)
It's not a perfect book. There's an essential corniness way deep down inside Morrison, particularly when it comes to love, that made me roll my eyes several times: "They stayed that way for a while because neither Denver nor Sethe knew how not to: how to stop and not love the look or feel of the lips that kept on kissing." Barf, right?
And while she usually manages to keep her Faulkner fetish in check, there are moments where the postmodern gobbledygook surges up; particularly in a bit toward the end from Beloved's perspective. We didn't need to get inside her head to realize she was insatiably nuts; Morrison could have trusted that she'd already gotten that across just fine.
But these are judgments made in the context of a great book. I'm picking on minor quibbles because Beloved is great enough that it deserves to be picked apart thoroughly. It is
a great book: rewarding, captivating, different, important. It deserves its place.