What novelist doesn't yearn to write, at least once, a book like Toni Morrison's Jazz (229 pages. Knopf. $21)? Relatively short. Dense. Its language highstrung and lyrical. Plotted less like an inverted V than like a snake devouring its tail. And concerned not just with its story and characters but also with the process of its own creation. A book with sentences. That aren't always sentences. But if this is beginning to sound like more fun for her than for you, trust Morrison. As in all her novels, from "The Bluest Eye" (1970), with its Dick-and-Jane leitmotif, to the 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner "Beloved," with its ghost protagonist and unpunctuated monologues, her art burns through her artiness. In Playing in the Dark (91 pages. Harvard. $14.95), her newly published essay on classic American literature, Morrison insists that "American means white"; but hyphen or no hyphen, she herself may be the last classic American writer, squarely in the tradition of Poe, Melville, Twain and Faulkner.
"Jazz" is set in 1920s Harlem, where Southern blacks migrated by the thousands: a cultural atomic pile in which (the churchgoing ladies say) "you couldn't tell the streetwalkers from the mothers" and "the music was getting worse and worse with each passing season the Lord waited to make Himself known." The "sooty" sounds of jazz express those suddenly liberated energies in all their ambivalence: sexual license, the disintegration of family ties (a girl leaves her baby brother on the street to dash inside for a copy of "The Trombone Blues"), the new militant politics. "The lowdown music ... had something to do with the silent black men and women marching down Fifth Avenue to advertise their anger over two hundred dead in East St. Louis." But Morrison's title also has a self-referential edge. The novel is an improvised elaboration by a gossipy unnamed narrator on the theme stated in the opening paragraph: a man shoots his mistress, and his wife tries to "cut her dead face" at the funeral.
The book begins with the narrator whispering, "Sth, I know that woman." In widening spirals, it explores the life histories of "that woman," Violet, her husband, Joe Trace (he named himself when he was told his parents had left " without a trace"), and Joe's mistress, candy-eating young Dorcas, with her "sugar-flawed skin ... her bitten nails, the heartbreaking way she stood, toes pointed in." (Everything in this apparently free-associative narrative connects to something else: Dorcas's parents died in the East St. Louis riots.) It widens again to take in Joe's mother (who didn't quite disappear without a trace), Violet's mother and grandmother, the white woman the grandmother worked for, and that woman's golden-skinned, golden-haired son, an odd amalgam of knight-errant and white-bread fop, whose father was "the blackest man in the world."
By the end of the book, though, the narrator admits she doesn't know these people - "they were thinking other thoughts, feeling other feelings, putting their lives together in ways I never dreamed of" - and has only "invented" their thoughts and deeds. In fact, she says, she's gotten it so wrong that a crucial turn of the plot she had promised isn't going to happen after all. Run that by us again? The gist seems to be a fancy variant of a novelist's proudest gripe: The characters got away from me.
But such metafictional shenanigans hardly affect the experience of reading "Jazz." As always, we're absolutely convinced we've fallen into a habitable world through the surface of the prose. And what a surface: a woman drowned in a well is found "twisted into water much too small"; on a rainy night, 1920s cars are "jet black boxes gliding behind hoodlights weakened by mist." And, as usual, we get to revisit Morrison Country: the black rural South, idyllic and hellish. It's where the sun looks "like the yolk of a good country egg, thick and red-orange at the bottom of the sky" - and where a young man is "mutilated and tied to a log, his grandmother refusing to give up his waste-filled trousers, washing them over and over although the stain had disappear at the third rinse."
In "Playing in the Dark," Morrison notes that a major theme of "Huckleberry Finn" is "the loss of Eden"; like much else in this essay, it applies to her work, too. The country people in "Jazz" are ecstatic to be in Harlem, but Morrison's imagination keeps turning homeward. In the city, the narrator says, people are free to be "their stronger, riskier selves." The story of Joe, Violet and Dorcas suggests that may or may not be a good idea. And like everything else this narrator says, it may or ma not be true.