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The Boston Phoenix Broken Promise

Toni Morrison's seventh novel attacks the myth of black separatism.

By Matthew DeBord

FEBRUARY 9, 1998: 

PARADISE, by Toni Morrison, Alfred A. Knopf, 318 pages, $25.

"They shoot the white girl first."

Thus begins Toni Morrison's enormously ambitious seventh novel -- her first since winning the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature -- an undertaking that will likely confound as many readers as it delights. One thing is certain: Morrison has not returned to the fray with anything that even vaguely resembles a crowd-pleaser. This is a masterful, unforgiving performance, awash with biblical references and deeply engaged in an overlooked chapter of the history of black migration. That first sentence, with its true-crime rhythm, functions like a narrative hand grenade, announcing immediately that the writer isn't going to waste time with racial pieties or redemptive legends of the American West.

What keeps racism alive and kicking in this nation is the predilection among whites to view themselves as sharing common ideologies and privileges, while relegating blacks to a victimized monoculture organized around collective traumas. In each of her novels, Toni Morrison has resisted, with an unflinching devotion to the force of storytelling, the tyranny of this attenuated understanding of a heritage rife with internal contradictions. Paradise is her most thrilling investigation of the lie that blacks are unified strictly by blackness. Unlike Beloved, however, which sought to cast slavery in intimate terms by telling the story of a runaway slave who kills her child rather than relinquish her to the horror she had escaped, or Jazz, with its dramatization of love and sex in the 1920s, Paradise sacrifices the personal in order to attack the myth that black separatism's purified virtue derives simply from its dream of living entirely apart from the white world.

To achieve this debunking, Morrison invents a pair of doomed communities that collide in 1976: Ruby, an all-black, devoutly Christian town in rural Oklahoma, and the "Convent," a former brothel and onetime Catholic school on Ruby's outskirts, now inhabited by five wayward women. The frightful event that commences with the shooting of the white girl involves the outraged patriarchy of Ruby -- led by the town's Romulus and Remus, the twins Steward and Deacon Morgan -- who have decided that the Convent must be cleansed of the women who have violated, perhaps with witchcraft, Ruby's masculine perfection. Ruby, of course, is already rotten -- "began when one kind of black man scorned another kind and that kind took the hatred to another level" -- a deception built on the bankrupt fantasy of an earlier town, Haven, established by black freedmen in 1890, then abandoned after the Depression. Ruby has existed only since 1950, and the Convent murders are the first deaths the town has ever known. The locus of tension between the old and the young that culminates in the raid on the Convent is the town's communal "Oven," removed brick by brick from Haven and rebuilt in Ruby. It bears an inscription in dispute: old folks read it as "Beware the Furrow of His Brow," a fire-and-brimstone Old Testament warning; youth goes for "Be the Furrow of His Brow," a hippified motto that implies a New Testament identification with an intimate God. The joke is that no one actually uses the Oven anymore. It has become, instead, a place for the bad kids to hang out, a false monument scarred by Black Power graffiti but nostalgically venerated by the town fathers.

Radiating out from this heavy-duty symbol -- a "utility" that "became a shrine" -- Morrison's ruined Promised Land takes shape through a sequence of recollections explaining how the women came to the Convent. Connie, the oldest, is rescued by nuns at age nine. Mavis goes on the lam after she kills her twins by leaving them in her husband's Cadillac with the windows closed on a hot day. Gigi, Seneca, and Pallas fill out the quintet. This is no seventies feminist utopia, however; Gigi, who has an affair with the Morgan twins' nephew, hates Mavis. Pallas is a wreck. Seneca's boyfriend is in prison. Connie -- whose youthful affair with Deacon Morgan links the fates of both communities -- becomes a drunk on the French wine stored in the Convent's cellar. Morrison carefully avoids revealing the women's races.

The idea that oppressed groups can make a separate peace in enclaves isolated from the wicked sway of the larger world has always tempted American dreamers. But it might not be possible for all of us to "get along" if whites refuse to acknowledge the complexity of the African-American experience, seeing only victims where there are sometimes villains. By lacing her dystopia with entwined destinies, showing how a murdered white girl can reveal a black Jerusalem to be a place "like any other country town: the young thinking of elsewhere; the old full of regret," Morrison fulfills an aesthetic philosophy she laid out in a 1987 New York Times Book Review interview. "Anger is too tiny an emotion to use when you're writing," she said, "and compassion is too sloppy . . . it's the mediation of those two states . . . that makes you feel compelled." Between these emotional poles, Morrison imposes a somber verdict to eulogize the promise of her lost paradise: "How exquisitely human was the wish for permanent happiness, and how thin human imagination became trying to achieve it."

Matthew DeBord is a regular contributor to FEED and Artforum.

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