Monday, December 22, 2003

Love Stinks

Love by Toni Morrison. Alfred A. Knopf. 212 pages. $25.00

Toni Morrison's new novel is a patchy, ill-conceived, uninspired disaster. It's the kind of book that starts in the present and works its way back to the past in fits and starts, clumsily delaying significant information for no other reason than to jerk the reader around. Plowing through it -- and I plowed as patiently as I could -- yields nothing more than a catalogue of gaping plot-holes and infatuated prose in the service of a dull theme.

The story involves two old women, both living together in the same house for twenty-plus years, both hating each other, and both connected to the late owner of a former hotel, whose legend dominates the cannery town of Silk, located somewhere on the Southern coast. One is Heed, widow of the late Bill Cosey, who pulled off the unusual feat of establishing a black-owned resort during the Depression, popular with celebrities and a top draw for jazz artists. The other is Christine, whose relationship is a little more obscure at first, and which Morrison is at pains to keep that way as long as possible.

What stands between the two is Cosey's will, which was so ambiguously worded as to make it unclear whom he intended to inherit his money. When Heed hires as a companion a runaway juvenile offender named Junior Viviane, Christine suspects that her illiterate nemesis is going to get the girl to draft a fake will that will settle Heed's claim. Obviously, this should set off warning bells in the minds of most readers, as Cosey died in 1971 and any investigator could spot fresh ink on a will, even if it was written on old paper. But Heed, for all her wisdom, is no brighter in this regard than her creator. Junior, at any rate, isn't all that sure what is up with either woman, and concentrates most of her energy on seducing Romen, the 14-year-old neighbor boy who sweeps up around the place.

Cosey, as we learn by bits and pieces, was something of a demon to his community, having gained his wealth by betraying and exploiting his own people. Late in life, having already lost one wife and one adult son, he married Heed, an eleven-year-old ragamuffin discovered on the beach and befriended by Christine -- his granddaughter, we discover, by May, surviving daughter-in-law of Cosey's late son. This information, which drove a lifelong wedge between the former playmates, is touched on and toyed with for about a hundred pages before it is made clear, by which time we also learn that Morrison has been cheating the reader in hopes of sustaining the mystery. Any half-awake reader will surely wonder how it is that when the now-elderly Heed shows Junior -- who doesn't know any more than we do, and who in any case is more concerned about getting her freak on with Romen -- a picture of her wedding day, she somehow fails to notice that the bride is a child.

As the story backtracks all over the place to bring us up to speed about all that's evolved over the half-century stand-off between Heed and Christine, the multi-tasking Morrison is busy trying to forge some kind of mystical link between Junior and Cosey, whose portrait hangs in Heed's bedroom. This aspect of the novel just gets sillier and sillier, as the conniving Junior somehow fancies she is being watched and encouraged by her "Good Man," as she calls Cosey's malefic ghost.

But Cosey isn't the only ghost in the novel; at the end we learn that chunks of the narrative have been assigned to another ghost, who has been dead many years but who, for most of the story, has been very much in the present, commenting not only on the events but on what's on TV, as well as changing fads from one year to the next. I suppose ghosts can do anything they want, but even Caspar has more ethereal qualities than this one.

No surprise that none of this come together plausibly in the end, when the struggle over the will brings Heed and Christine to a largely unmotivated heart to heart that could have just as easily taken place any time in the last two decades and -- given the information it contains -- probably would have.

Putting the plot aside, which takes some effort, Morrison is also hampered by her prose style, which, to borrow her own description of masturbation, she does not quite whip into unbelievable creaminess. Instead, time and again this thin book suffers from bloat, especially at the end, when she tries to plow in a few clumsy points about how black people, and specifically black women, continue to make themselves slaves -- "it's like we started out being sold, got free of it, then sold ourselves to the highest bidder."

This is a hackneyed point even if Morrison could have developed it, which she couldn't, as the random series of dreary scenes that comprise the novel make for far too rocky a soil to nourish any point at all.

It's probably worth noting that these faults have not stopped the book from becoming a bestseller. I'd like to meet the person who bought it on the strength of the author's name and reached the last page with undimmed affection. Me, I'm sick of Love.

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