Although I didn’t love Jazz as much as I loved Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I found it to have a similar depth. I know such depth requires me to reread it in order to truly sum up the main point of the novel. Because I’ve only read it once, I’m somewhat stumped as I go to write thoughts about it now. I am afraid these thoughts are rather jumbled and inaccurate given what the novel is supposed to be saying, so keep in mind that this is more a post about my impressions after reading it, not so much a “review.”
In some respects, Jazz seemed to capture the complexities of two different generations of African-Americans living in Harlem in the 1920s: the middle-aged and the young adult. But it also deals with redemption and forgiveness. It wasn’t a beautiful novel for me to read, but I’m glad I did read it.
Although Violet and Joe have been in Harlem for twenty years when the main action takes place (1926), we learn of their childhoods and marriage in frequent flashbacks. The novel begins brutally, by telling us what happened: Joe shot his 18-year-old lover of three months, Dorcas, and his wife Violet attacked the dead girl at the funeral, slashing her face with a knife (page 3).
The rest of the book is going back in forth in time, trying to determine what happened and why. It was fascinating to examine how memories and events in the past influence current events or our understanding of current events, and the confusing nature of the narration was a way of portraying the confusion Violet and Joe feel as they struggle to come to terms with their past and what they’ve done. Contrasting Violet and Joe’s complicated back stories of life growing up in the south is the story of Dorcas and her friend Felice, who are both young and have different attitudes toward life, death, and Harlem in general.
One aspect that made Jazz so difficult for me was the narration and writing style. The narrator is an unknown omniscient viewer of some kind, telling the story in first person. I never could figure out if I was supposed to know who or what was narrating, and that was a little disconcerting. As I went to write this post, I referenced Wikipedia and an interview with Toni Morrison and it makes more sense now, but that’s after finishing reading it. For a first time reader, it’s important to know that the narrator is unreliable. What really happened? I really need to reread it.
In the last pages of the novel (*spoilers*), the narrator says “I invented stories about them” (page 220) and talks about the healing that Violet and Joe were able to do. It really is a story of redemption. They were able to rise above their past and look toward the future, and I think (just think, because I’ve only read this once and it needs a second read) that jazz music was what helped them do that.
The pattern of the story telling is, appropriately, a “jazz” style (according to Wikipedia). I don’t listen to jazz music (except for Christmas music by jazz artists) so I missed the “call and response” side to the novel’s writing. It just felt uncomfortable to read for me. Beyond the style, though, the main characters were incredibly complex, mostly because they kept being recreated by the narrator. I struggled to follow their thought progression through the novel.
In preparing this post, I found a Time magazine interview with Toni Morrison. She is asked about jazz music and here’s her response:
I try to echo some of the basic characteristics of jazz music in that book by refusing to have a narrator or leader who knew everything and exactly how the music was going to turn out. Instead, the narrator had to listen to the characters the way Miles Davis listened while he performed with his musicians,and depending on what they did, that would affect the next solo or alteration in the music.
Now I want to listen to Miles Davis! Maybe then I’ll reread Morrison’s Jazz. And because I loved this interview, here’s another quote from Ms. Morrison about Jazz. (*Spoilers*)
I had to keep in mind, and I think readers should keep in mind, that all of it is artifice. It’s all planned, but it should look unplanned. The narrator was designed to be unreliable and to have only part of the story and to be the one that was most inaccurate by the time one reaches the end, but at the same time, the narrator learned about its own vulnerability. I wanted to explode the idea of an all-knowing, omnipotent, totalitarian, authorial voice and to parallel the democratic impulse of jazz ensembles.
I read Jazz because as I researched the Harlem Renaissance in December, I discovered that Toni Morrison had written this novel. Since I loved Beloved, which captured the 1860s-1880s era in African-American life, I decided to see how she examined the 1920s African-American. I’m very glad I read it, and I did enjoy reading it. The themes didn’t feel as universal as those in Beloved, though, so while I really should reread Jazz to full comprehend Morrison’s purpose in writing it, more likely I will be rereading Beloved again instead.
What novels have you read with unknown and possibly unreliable narrators?
Do you listen to jazz music?
[Because this book is out of my normal reading]