Something to Read: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Song of Solomon.JPG

So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Toni Morrison is a pretty good writer.

I actually remember when I first read Beloved in English class in eleventh grade. The book, in my mind, couldn’t be literature because it was too easy and enjoyable to read. We had just finished Crime and Punishment and I was convinced—like many who read Dostoyevski too young… or ever—that ‘brilliance’ must be attached to inaccessibility. And then I read Morrison, and she wrote books that breezed past your eyeballs, as if you were watching a movie.

In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine that Toni Morrison would even be possible in a pre-cinema world. The way that Beloved uses flashback, voice, and the actual shape of the text (italics) to jump between narrators seems somehow tied to words like ‘cut,’ ‘fade in,’ and, well, ‘flashback.’ She was one of those early authors, along with Kurt Vonnegut, who made me realize it is possible to actually like literary fiction rather than merely admiring it. 

But I’m theoretically talking about Song of Solomon here. To wit: it’s a pretty good book. I googled the title when I started reading and discovered that the Song of Solomon is the Song of Songs, which is a quasi-pagan-seeming piece of biblical incantation that celebrates young lovers. (And was immediately coopted by the Church, as are all things sexual, and turned into something try as toast: a metaphorical celebration of the marriage between divinity and the church itself.) The title may well reference some of the sex in the book—there’s lots of sex in the book—but it also refers to a much more literal children’s song that various characters sing in snippets throughout. The cooption of biblical naming is twice appropriate since Morrison takes an almost Faulknerian delight in repurposed names. Our protagonist is Macon Dead, a man so named because when his grandfather registered at the Freedman’s Bureau at the end of the Civil War, a clerk asked him where he was from, if his father was alive, and what was his family name and then the clerk put the names in the wrong columns. So ‘Jake’ became ‘Macon Dead,’ a man who picks his children’s names by pointing a finger at the bible. Hence his daughter, Pilate, and various other family including Ruth, Reba, First Corinthians, and Magdalene. 

I remember reading about how, near his death, Hemingway started to find words increasingly insubstantial. Here’s him in Farewell to Arms “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain… There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. (I’m cribbing from Joan Didion’s incredible essay on his life to quote the text.) Morrison seems to feel a similar power to proper nouns, particularly names in Solomon. There’s a paragraph, near the end of the novel, that is just a list of names, which it would be a shame to abbreviate… so I won’t:

"He closed his eyes and thought of the black men in Shalimar, Roanoke, Petersburg, Newport News, Danville, in the Blood Bank, on Darling Street, in the pool halls, the barbershops. Their names. Names they got from yearnings gestures, flaws, events, mistakes, weaknesses. Names that bore witness. Macon Dead, Sing Byrd, Crowell Byrd, Pilate, Reba, Hagar, Magdalene, First Corinthians, Milkman, Guitar, Railroad Tommy, Hospital Tommy, Empire State (he just stood around and swayed), Small Boy, Sweet, Circe, Moon, Nero, Humpty-Dumpty, Blue Boy, Scandinavia, Quack-Quack, Jericho, Spoonbread, Ice Man, Dough Belly, Rocky River, Gray Eye, Cock-a-Doodle-Doo, Cool Breeze, Muddy Waters, Pinetop, Jelly Roll, Fats, Leadbelly, Bo Diddley, Cat-Iron, Peg-Leg, Son, Shortstuff, Smoky Babe, Funny Papa, Bukka, Pink, Bull Moose, B.B. T-Bone, Black Acr, Lemon, Washboard, Gatemouth, Cleanhead, Tampa Red, Juke Boy, Shine, Staggerlee, Jim the Devil, Fuck-Up, and Dat Nigger."

It’s a whole history, written only in the names of the people who lived it.

Solomon, unlike Beloved or Bluest Eye, also feels like it’s pulled from Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It has the same sense of scope: whole generations of people exist in the pages. And the magic of their universe, like that of the Buendias in A Hundred Years of Solitude is only just below the surface. The ghosts of the dead aren’t even particularly unusual here: a minor aberration from daily norms, no more alarming than a thunderstorm. 

All in all, it’s a book that is really asking for a book club. But since I don’t have one, I’ll settle with this post.