martes, 7 de diciembre de 2010

A Mercy

A Mercy (Vintage International, 2009)
by Toni Morrison
USA, 2008

With all due respect to the friends who have raved about various Morrison titles to me, I'm not sure that the novelist and I are cut out for each other.  Dud historical fiction tearjerker that starts out with a provocative premise--a 17th century slave mother voluntarily abandons her daughter in the hopes that the act will save the child from a harsher life--before eventually bogging down in uninteresting storytelling and a surprising lack of subtlety.  While the novel's not without its merits (an early slave-buying scene, for example, is undeniably chilling with its spotlight on the participants' callous contempt for the human dimensions of the "merchandise" on sale), I found the narrative to be way less compelling than advertised.  First of all, there's the matter of point of view.  A Mercy is ambitiously narrated from the perspective of a number of characters--black and white, slave and free--but the resulting chorus was largely unconvincing to me.  In some cases, as in the Mistress' recollection of her journey from England to the Americas, I felt as if Morrison were committing the cardinal historical fiction mistake of dumping a lot of intrusive period details into the mix to make it seem more authentic in regard to time and place.  Just let the story flow.  In others, as in Florens' interior monologue about her love for the blacksmith, I was just annoyed by the exaggerated simplicity of the various characters' speech and thoughts: "With you my body is pleasure is safe is belonging.  I can never not have you have me" (161).  Not exactly beguiling prose.  Although I get the idea that Morrison probably wrote the characters the way she did to reflect their otherness somehow, I doubt that her lack of subtlety can be explained away quite as easily.  When the character Sorrow gives birth to a baby daughter and utters, "I am your mother... My name is Complete" (158), for example, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the made-for-TV-movie level epiphany.  Are you fucking kidding me?  In any event, not really the book for me nor the best argument for reading a novel in lieu of a work of history when given a choice.  A disappointment. (http://www.vintagebooks.com/)

Toni Morrison

19 comentarios:

  1. This sounds like Beloved Redux. That one's about a slave woman who kills her daughter to save her from a harsh life. But Beloved is an incredible book and you probably should have read it instead of this one. There's also a recollection of a slave ship but it's done in this surreal, stream-of-conscious style that's just so haunting.

    Jazz bogs down after awhile but has some great depictions of Harlem in the '20s.

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  2. You know, I totally agree with you. I read The Bluest Eye a few years ago and loved it, but could not get into this one at all and found it obvious and somehow superficial. It was surprising and disappointing, not what I expected from Morrison. I plan to read Beloved still, but if I hadn't also read The Bluest Eye I would have completely lost interest because of this one!

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  3. I haven't read this, but I've actually encountered a LOT of Morrison fans express disappointment in it, so even setting aside the question of whether you & Toni could potentially gel, this may not have been the best starting-point. Some of her stuff has really done it for me (Beloved, Song of Solomon) and others have seemed a bit thin and, like you point out, made-for-TVish (Love, Jazz). But also, as they say, to each their own! :-)

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  4. I love your review! I have entertained myself thoroughly for the last five minutes trying to say "I can never not have you have me" really fast! After I get that down, I'll try it with peanut butter in my mouth, just for an added challenge...

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  5. Sorry to hear that you didn't care for this one, Richard. I read it a few years ago and actually really liked Morrison's writing, though I admit that the passages you quote are perhaps not the finest. Still, I thought there was something hypnotic about this novel, and I liked it a lot.

    That said, I agree with what Emily says about most people feeling this is not Morrison's finest effort. I've been saving Beloved, but I can attest to Song of Solomon being pretty fantastic. I also really liked Love, but I found it a bit of a departure for Morrison, so I'd recommend SoS before it.

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  6. *chuckles at the 'You Complete me' line*

    Morrison has a penchant for not-subtle names. I think her late style can be polarizing. I loved her early books (Sula and Tar Baby) but had mixed reactions with the more recent.

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  7. Heh on the made for TV epiphany. I'd probably groan at that one too.

    I did like Beloved, but I wasn't swept away by it the way many readers were. I've been wanting to give Morrison a second try and I picked this up on sale, but maybe I'll try something different first (or at least remember that the consensus among commenters here is that this isn't her strongest work).

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  8. I think I will give Sula a try one of these days. I thought Beloved is quite good but I hated Jazz. I read an interview where she said she didn't write to be easily understood, she wants the reader to slow down and read carefully. I don't mind that but I didn't think Jazz was worth this type of attentive reading. This does sound similar.

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  9. I always hear the most marvellous things about Toni Morrison and yet I have still not read her, I do have one of her shorter books 'Love' on the TBR so maybe that would be a good place to start and test the waters?

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  10. I read A Mercy right around this time last year, and I just went back to see what I wrote about it because I had the feeling that I hadn't cared for it. Oddly enough, my mini review (granted, written soon after a reading marathon so my brain was a little soggy still) was far more glowing than I expected. I definitely recall being mildly annoyed by the less than beguiling prose you mention! Huh. Anyway, thanks for the reminder that I do want to try something else by Morrison, although I'm still trying to decide what...

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  11. *E.L. Fay: I'll keep Beloved in mind if I decide to give Morrison a second shot, but I don't see that happening anytime soon given the number of other authors I'd rather read/reread first. Your description of it (and even Jazz somewhat) does sound pretty great, though!

    *Emily Jane: I was so relieved to see your comment (and Emily's below) because I thought A Mercy was lacking in some major ways that Morrison fans hadn't prepared me for at all. It's definitely good to hear you had a much better experience with that other title, though!

    *Emily: Whether Morrison and I will ever gel, I think it's clear that this wasn't the right starting point for me. Should have listened to my anti-historical fiction biases, I guess! I'm surprised to hear that a lot of Morrison fans have dissed this, though--unfortunately for me, I only remembered the rave reviews when I picked it up. Doh!

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  12. *Jill: Although entire chapters of that sort of baby talk prose tended to demoralize me, thanks, that's a crack-up! P.S. When you get done with the peanut butter variation of the tongue twister, you can always hold the tip of your tongue and try to say "I was born on a pirate ship." It was a laugh riot when I was at the age to enjoy Margo Lanagan novels and Babar books and such, ha ha! :D

    *Steph: No biggie about not enjoying this--I've actually been quite reassured by what people have come up with in the way of recommendations for other Morrison novels. And I can see why someone who enjoyed A Mercy's prose might find it hypnotic rather than repetitious and belabored like I did: after all, there were passages I enjoyed here and there hidden amongst the clunkers!

    *Rise: YES, that line did have a cheesy Titanic quality that I just couldn't put my finger on--how classic that you made that connection! And thanks for your comments re: the polarizing nature of Morrison's later style and her penchant for not so subtle names. That may help if I decide to give her another chance at some point.

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  13. *Teresa: With all the support for Beloved (even your moderate support) and one or two other Morrison novels here, I feel I'll probably give her another chance in a year or two. Maybe we just got off to a bad start. Will be interested in what you think of your own second Morrison title, though, especially since there seems to be a hit or miss quality to her work according to all these wonderful comments. Cheers!

    *Caroline: I think Sula and Song of Solomon were among my back-up choices for A Mercy, so I'll be eager to hear what you think of that pick whenever you get around to it. And I did enjoy the structure of the narration (or how Morrison intended to tell it with the different narrators)--I just wasn't satisfied with the voices of the characters and the prose in general if that makes any sense.

    *Simon: I'm probably not the best guy to field your question, but A Mercy was less than 200 pages of puffed-up print (i.e. it would probably be somewhere around 150 pages or so in a "normal" font with smaller margins) and was relatively quick reading all in all. However, the prose so grated on me that it took a lot longer than it should have for me to finish. So a short Morrison sounds good, I guess, but maybe one of her consensus best would be the better way to go for a first-timer. Hope you have better luck than I did in any event!

    *Sarah: Aha, so maybe you're the one who steered me wrong then! (Ha, just kidding.) How funny, though, that you liked this but still remember feeling "mildly annoyed" with the prose. Will have to go back and reread your review (plus Claire's b/c I think she was another big fan of the work) to compare notes. Cheers!

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  14. Oh no! I have this on my shelf. Bluest Eye was amazing and Jazz was pretty good. Haven't read any other of her stuff. I'll still give this one a go but it will probably not be high on the priority list.

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  15. This is a very far distance from my favorite Morrison novel which is Song of Solomon where the occasional theatricality of her prose takes on the shape of folklore rather than butchered historical fiction as you seem to suggest here. Too late to tell you now, but not the Morrison to start with maybe.

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  16. For what it's worth, I don't like Toni's writing. I've always felt so alone in that sentiment, but it's true. Beloved and Paradise are the only two I've read, but I've never felt compelled to pick up anything more. Once again, "Bellezza? Party of one?"
    Or, maybe you'll sit at the table with me.

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  17. *Stefanie: I may not be the voice of reason on this one since almost everybody else seems to have better luck with Morrison than I. Come to think of it, I may not be the voice of reason ever in general. Cheers!

    *Frances: "Butchered historical fiction" = awesome! LMFAO. Will have to steal that for another post. In the meantime, I gladly take note of your Song of Solomon recommendation in the event I decide to give Morrison another try. Kind of conflicted about that right now...

    *Bellezza: I'll certainly join you at that table for the moment--and maybe for all of 2011 while we're at it. Are your Morrison posts up at your blog? Wondering if your reasons for disliking those two works are at all similar to mine. Cheers!

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  18. I really wish you could've read Song of Solomon or Beloved (or even The Bluest Eye or Sula) instead of this. My last three reads of her were quite disappointing (Love, Tar Baby, A Mercy). I did appreciate them to an extent but mainly because I already loved her based on the other books so much. If I had started reading her with these three, I wouldn't have liked her, probably.

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  19. Happy New Year 2011! You had left links to my lousy post. I don't know how they are done, this is of course beside the point here but if you can explain how you do it??? Write to my email (profile) if you have got the time. I used to be able to do that and now I have forgotten. It must be in the Blogger adjustments? Marvin Gaye - Mercy, Mercy Me!:D

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