Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison is a song for the ages. This is the first Toni Morrison book that I discovered, and for over two decades I have repeatedly gone back to it. It has cast a magical spell on me since, and has been my best introduction to modern works of literature. Its narrative never ceases to invigorate and enthrall.
The language is rich, apt, deliberate, uninhibited, and beguiling. The novel is a reflection on family, community and nationhood. It is about the torment of dispossession, power without bounds, and the ugly face of bigotry. It is also about survival, about human resilience and the indestructible quest for identity. The narrative is carefully crafted and wonderfully lyrical-a song with almost no equal.
We journey with the story’s main protagonist, Macon (Milkman) Dead Jr, from birth, through the vacuous, stultifying, and even lurid terrain of his adolescent life. We finally witness his life-and-death encounter with a world, a repellant landscape, which sought to drown him when he desired was to find purpose to his life. His history, his metamorphosis and his flight are the foundations of the song.
Milkman is the son of Macon Dead Sr,-a rapacious, irascible, but successful entrepreneur. The father suffocates and poisons his family, and his son, with his rage, his contempt, and his disappointments. His tormented spirit becomes the swamp in which the Dead family daily wades in. His success is no balm to his bitterness. His wife, Ruth (Forster) Dead, the main object of his outrage is reduced to a pathetic creature that exists only in the shadows-daily reproached, maligned, despised, and humiliated by the husband that she loves.
His daughters’ Magdalena Dead and First Corinthians Dead shrivel from the isolation that their closeted life bestows upon them. Their father’s wealth, stained with his scorn and pomposity, begets them a life of loneliness and disappointment. Their friends are scared even to touch their silk stockings and expensive dresses. Like their mother, Ruth, their souls are emptied of all emotion-rendering them incapable of loving or being loved. They are frustrated and querulous spinsters whose fury for their father rages like a flooded river.
Their contempt for their selfish brother, Milkman, is irrepressible. ‘You’ve have been laughing at us all your life, Corinthians. Mama. Me. Using us, ordering us, and judging us: How we cook your food; how we keep your house… Who are you to approve or disapprove anybody or anything?… When you wanted to play we entertained you, and when you got grown enough to know the difference between a woman and a tow-toned Ford, everything in this house stopped for you.’
The world that Toni Morrison describes is grim. In Dante’s Inferno the gates of Hell are flung open, and in Song of Solomon the reader is immersed in a world that has a disturbing odour of slavery, with depravity hovering menacingly in the background. It is a pernicious domain that produced men and women whose souls were deformed by loss and suffering.
Milkman Dead’s narcissism is juxtaposed to the nihilism of his friend Guitar. Guitar responds to the mayhem around him with rage. Throughout the book he sizzles, like a piece of bacon burning in its own fat. It is with violence that he tries to reclaim his own freedom. Guitar possesses all the destructive sentiments that an organically dysfunctional society imposes on its denizens. However, Milkman, in order to go beyond his father’s drive for more wealth embarks on an odyssey to his ancestral home of Shalimar. It is the discovery of these roots that finally leads him to discover his inner self.
Professor Morrison once again raises the bar very high with this novel. The reader is enchanted by the story’s characters, and is besotted even with the minor ones. There are long passages of dialogue in the vernacular unique to the epoch and people she describes, and it is mostly written with simple and yet jarring language. This book is a portrait of the world, a time which may be hidden but not forgotten, through her gaze-and that of her clan’s.
Song of Solomon is a work of extra-ordinary beauty and integrity… a true masterpiece.