‘Song of Solomon’, makes an interesting companion text to Morrison’s later novel, ‘Beloved’ which I reviewed earlier this month. Both novels take as their subject matter the question of African American identity and experience, but while ‘Beloved’ looks unflinchingly at arguably the most difficult period of this experience, the nineteenth century, ‘Song of Solomon’ takes as its setting a later, less traumatic time span, approximately 1930-1963. The novel opens with the death of an insurance agent, Robert Smith, who believes he can fly. From this opening scene Morrison introduces her cast, the Dead family, who witness Smith’s death, along with the rest of the community of Not Doctor Street, The family derives their name from the period immediately after the end of slavery, when all former slaves had to register with the Freedmen’s Bureau, and when the answer to a question about the character’s father (who was deceased) was mistakenly entered as his name. Other unusual names are a motif throughout the novel, either as nicknames – Milkman, Guitar, Sweet – or as family names chosen at random from the bible – First Corinthians, Pilate, and Magdalene called Lena
At first the novel is a wide-ranging saga following the interwoven relationships of the Dead family across several generations. The structure is complex, with revelations about the family’s past being revealed slowly in flashback. However the novel changes pace at roughly half way, (the original New York Times review called it an “abrupt shift”) and in this latter section the narrative becomes more akin to a thriller or a detective story. Here the search for buried gold, a midnight hunt, a secret society and above all an emerging mystery surrounding the origins of the Dead family are breathlessly presented. Eventually the novel’s protagonist, Milkman, so-called because his mother breastfed him into early childhood, learns his great-grandfather Solomon was said to have escaped slavery by flying back to Africa, bringing the theme of flight full circle. Finally, another leap into flight leaves the novel to end on an ambiguous note. Morrison uses this theme –flight – as both a symbol of empowerment and escape, and of self delusion and suicide.
Morrison took a risk in making Milkman her central character – he is not very sympathetic, particularly in his relationships with women, not least his cousin Hagar, who eventually dies of (to all intents and purposes) a broken heart. He is heavily influenced by his parents, but takes most of his advantages and friendships for granted. One of the best scenes is where his sister, after decades of silence, finally lays into him:
“Where do you get the right to decide our lives? I’ll tell you where. From that little hog’s gut that hangs between your legs. Well, let me tell you something… you will need more than that. I don’t know where you will get it or who will give it to you, but mark my words, you will need more than that…. You are a sad, pitiful, stupid, selfish, hateful man. I hope your little hog’s gut stands you in good stead, and you take good care of it, because you don’t have anything else.”
I can admire Morrison’s obvious skill in this novel. She combines a compelling storyline with wonderfully crafted imagery and insights into complexities of the African American experience in twentieth century America. The skill in construction of the novel is obvious in little scenes like the following, where Milkman and Guitar spot a peacock white incongruously in the street:
“How come it can’t fly no better than a chicken?’ Milkman asked.
Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can’t nobody fly with all that [stuff]. Wanna fly, you got to give up the [stuff] that weighs you down.’
In just a few lines the themes of flight, commercialism and the pursuit of wealth are neatly tied up in a brief sketch. Morrison’s penetrating insight is also shown in the portrayal of relationships between men and women, for example when Milkman describes a conquest as a “third beer”.
“She was the third beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it’s there, because it can’t hurt, and because what difference does it make.”
So why the hesitation? The simple truth is that I admired and enjoyed this novel, but wasn’t blown away by it. It lacks some of the power of ‘Beloved’, and while many of the characters are memorable, not least Milkman’s aunt Pilate, yet Milkman himself is not the character the reader wants to follow. The change of tone is at the time welcome – who doesn’t enjoy the occasional midnight chase or escape from sudden death – but the uneasy shift in tone left me wanting to know more about some of the threads left dangling. Lastly, I’ve written elsewhere at my frustration with authors using the device of killing off a key character simply to provide a convenient resolution (rather than as the fulfilment of an inevitable fate)– I was surprised to see an author of Morrison’s calibre relying on this approach as well.