Soon, one of my classes will wander into meta-territory, the domain where you are no longer talking about this book and begin talking about writing, reading, thinking.
Next week they will reach the twenty-second and twenty-third chapters of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. If you’ve read the book you would remember these chapters—one is stream of consciousness coming from the eponymous Beloved, a murdered two-year-old come back from the dead to occupy a young woman’s body. The next chapter was her consciousness layered with her mother’s and sister’s.
Two-year-olds make complete sense only to themselves, and seem biologically incapable of the linear, sequential thought that streams through prose. Morrison must have done something right because chapter twenty-two is particularly incomprehensible:
I cannot find my man the one whose teeth I have loved a hot thing the men without skin push them through with poles the woman is there with the face I want the face that is mine they fall into the sea which is the color of bread she has nothing in her ears if I had the teeth of the man who died on my face I would bite the circle around her neck bite it away I know she does not like it now there is room to crouch and to watch the crouching others it is the crouching that is now always now inside the woman with my face is in the sea a hot thing.
We will spend some time trying to decode this passage and others like it by examining what are clearly repetitive and important elements: faces, teeth, the sea, and, of course, “a hot thing.”
During discussion, the last item can become comic punctuation—“I think water might represent birth or transformation between life and death and back again…a hot thing.”
In such moments, I’m especially appreciative of what good sports I teach. I give them a task—make sense of a pointedly and relentlessly recondite passage—and they sum their considerable intelligence to gain a foothold. But I’m not naïve, some only pretend to like it. Midway through the period, someone will wander into meta-territory by asking why this book has to be so challenging, why authors don’t try harder to be understood.
If I turn the question back on them, they have a ready generic response—authors want us to participate in assembling meaning instead of absorbing it. Half the fun, a dutiful student will say, is solving the puzzle. Authors know: show, don’t tell.
Okay, of course that’s right, but something in me goes cold when I hear it. Maybe I’m tired and skeptical of right answers that are too easy, but a better response might be that, if consciousness is mercurial, prose should be too. As Morrison channeled her character, the diction and syntax probably formed like new track in front of her, but some students seem to see it the other way around. Morrison laid the tracks with switchbacks and impossible grades…then tried to drive it, reader-passengers be damned. Perhaps it’s both—she wanted to be true to Beloved’s elusiveness in an aesthetically sophisticated way—but I’m sure her subject came before her reader. Her aim was authenticity, not ostentation. She wasn’t trying to pander to a bunch of brains looking for something to do. She was doing her best to be Beloved.
My students accept the explanation that Morrison wanted to present Beloved as she would be—difficult to understand—but they have much more difficulty with my other answer: perhaps the trouble is our expectation of sense, not the book’s reluctance to offer it. Language isn’t all about rational communication—some shifting percentage (but always majority) of communication is non-verbal, or so I’m always told. So why can’t language have an effect that eludes rational explanation the same way music can? Why can’t Morrison’s chapters be music not intended to further the plot or offer clues to character?
Which is a tough sell because Morrison has to be after something. School teaches us to analyze and look for meaning in the text, and advertising teaches us to look for hidden agendas. In school, we expect information rather than tone or emotion. When we watch TV, advertisers send us searching for extra-textual motives in art. The author means for us to do this or that (or the other) the same way Maxwell House means to sell us coffee by telling a story of new neighbors sharing a cup.
Some people resent speakers with advanced vocabulary because they believe the speakers are showing off or want to create a particular image. The speakers, these people believe, are advertising their intelligence. The words, they believe, have an extra-textual intent. But it’s possible those speakers might use the words because they are looking for just the right words or because they enjoy the diversity and range of language or just the sound of words like “recondite.” They may have been looking for any excuse to use the word “eponymous.” Yet, for some people, those words distract instead of add. They’re pretension, not communication.
However, the more literature I read the less I believe great writers calculate their image. Pick up a New York Times Book Review, look at the ads, and it appears every book is about its attractive author, but that’s about selling the book, not about appreciating it…and certainly not about writing it. I like to believe writers are difficult or easy because it’s what their subject demands.
And, as for the photographs, it’s just a fact of life writers are good-looking.
After too many minutes talking about difficulty in fiction, my class will inch closer to understanding what “a hot thing” is and—as I’m not at all sure myself —I’ll be grateful for the diversion and for the re-education, any chance to redirect students’ attention and reclaim them from advertisers…and maybe even school itself.