Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Jazz by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison
Originally 1992, I read Plume 1993
229 pages, drama, literary fiction
FOUND: Half Price Books, Hamilton, OH, USA

A middle-aged man shoots his 18-year-old lover, and then his wife attacks the body at the funeral. But what came after, and what before? In this beautifully lyrical novel, told in Toni Morrison’s signature style, an anonymous narrator tells how this event came to be and what each character’s past and future holds – and how the City has come to shape each of them and their expectations of each other.

I have been fascinated by Toni Morrison’s writing since I first read Beloved in a high school English class. That book was a bit too gory and explicit for my teenaged self, so I waited a few years before reading more. This book is the second in a loose trilogy, following Beloved and followed by Paradise – all of which contain similar themes about the history of African Americans in the USA, particularly the role of Black women in that history.

Grief and Guilt

Joe, the man who killed his lover, is filled with grief in that action’s aftermath. He cries and cries and is unable to do anything else. And it seems that he’s not just mourning for his young, dead lover: he’s mourning for himself, for his past, and for who he used to be.
But his wife, Violet, is just as drawn to the dead girl as he is. She wants to learn more about her dead competitor with a gruesome fascination: what was it that drew her husband to this girl who could easily have been his daughter? What was she like when she was eating ice cream? What did she wear? Who did she hang around with? Through these pressing questions, she strikes up an unlikely friendship with the dead girl’s aunt. And it turns out that grief and fascination can bring people together just as it can tear them apart.

The City

In this novel, the city itself is one of the main characters. "The City," as it is called, is probably Chicago, based on a few brief mentions of the El and especially because the mass migration of Blacks from the South in the early 1900s, the main historical focus of this novel, was primarily to Chicago. If you read it from a literal historical standpoint, Jazz has a lot to say about this mass migration, the reasons for it, and the effects it had on the people who moved.

From a more literary standpoint, The City is a fascinating place that makes people do things they wouldn’t even dream about in the country. Like taking a lover young enough to be your daughter, or forgetting what the stars look like in the rough and tumble of the city. It is a place of forgetting and fragmentation: a place where looking is more important than feeling. At the same time it pulls people in with urgency and fascination.


There are not many direct references to jazz music in this novel, but all the same its presence is felt throughout. The rhythms of jazz sing from the rooftops and through the streets, through the speakeasies where alcohol runs freely, and as the background music for Joe’s murder of his lover.
Toni Morrison’s signature writing style brings it into the language itself, melding parts of African American English dialects into the rhythm of the city and the disjointed but flowing ruminations of the characters and the narrator.  All else aside, I would recommend this novel just for the writing -it is that gorgeous.

If you have not picked up any works by this Nobel Prize-winning author, this is a good one to start with. Not as graphically shocking as Beloved, Jazz deals with issues that are just as complex and important.

Further Reading: 

Chicago and the Great Migration, 1915–1950 from The Newberry
What is Ebonics (African American English)? by John R. Rickford from the Linguistic Society of America

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