Toni Morrison’s new novel is like the music that gave it its title. It is rhythmic, emotional, controlled even in its wildest moments, skilful, subversive and irresistibly seductive. It is born out of, and evokes, both pain and pleasure. It laments and celebrates black experience; it takes themes and plays variations upon them; it plunges, soars, and lingers.
Jazz not only inspires the form of the book, it is also one of the central characters. It is as palpable as its human protagonists, Violet and her erring husband, Joe, who loved eighteen-year-old Dorcas ‘with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going’. The story is set in New York in the 1920s, where Alice, Dorcas’s puritanical aunt and guardian, ‘had worked hard to privatize her niece, but she was no match for a City seeping music that begged and challenged each and every day. “Come,” it said. “Come and do wrong.”’ Alice futilely closes the windows against the danger.
Jazz is in cahoots with the City, its accomplice. Violet and Joe are country folk who come to grief not so much because Joe falls in love with a young girl, but because they both fall in love with the streets and cellars and rooftops where jazz whispers its temptations. And Alice is right about the peril. Joe, who turns into a killer, was always ‘the sort women ran to when they thought they were being followed or watched, or needed someone to have the extra key’. It is clear where the blame lies for the transformation: ‘Look out for a faithful man near fifty. Because he has never messed with another woman; because he selected that young girl to love, he thinks he is free … Take my word for it, he is bound to the track. It pulls him like a needle through the groove of a Bluebird record. Round and round about the town. That’s the way the City spins you. Makes you do what it wants, go where the laid-out roads say to … You can’t get off the track a City lays for you.’
While Joe is caught in these tracks, Violet, too, is led on by the grooves of a record. Crazed at Dorcas’s funeral, she tries to attack the corpse of her rival with a knife. Why? Because she was ‘trying to do something bluesy’. But the music and the place are not exactly the villains of the novel. They are really its heroes, passionate as well as dangerous, life-affirming as well as deadly. The book’s central love affair is between them and the narrator. The real villainy in the book, as you would expect from the author of that superlative catalogue raisoné of racial injustice, Beloved, is the cruelty of white people to black people.
There is plenty of it in Violet and Joe’s history. It is manifest in the ghettoised poverty of the City, and in the rural community they came from. And in the subplot that links Violet’s grandmother, maid to a prosperous white woman, to Joe’s mother, known as Wild, who lives alone and crazy in the cornfields. Wild gives birth to Joe in the brutally negligent presence of the white woman’s son. The son, Golden Gray, called after his hair and eyes, is, ironically, fathered by a black man but has not yet learned not to despise this half of himself. Such brutality as his is the bass line to Jazz.
The melody, though, is forgiveness. Violet and Alice sustain each other after Dorcas’s death. Dorcas’s aptly named best friend Felice offers Violet and Joe a doorway to happiness, a way out of the impasse of grief in which their marriage is trapped. And the triumphant humanity of the story takes even the narrator by surprise: ‘I was sure one would kill the other,’ she asserts, ‘I waited for it so I could describe it. I was so sure it would happen.’ The novel concludes with a free-form solo by the narrator, a strange, virtuoso coda on the relationship between characters and author. And this, off on its own improvisation, ends with a declaration of passion. The book turns out to be a love song. Of such genius, I’d say, that it’s one by Louis Armstrong.