No Improving on Improvisation

Jazz, Toni Morrison's newest novel, is yet another example of the author's genius. Her technical mastery at mixing myth with metaphor, folklore with fable, poetry and taunt, lyrical narrative with political polemic has gained her recognition not only as a great American writer but also as one of the most provocative scribes in these modern times.

From The Bluest Eye, written two decades ago, to Beloved, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, Morrison has mined the particulars of the black experience. Her novels spin out poignant portrayals of characters forced to acknowledge the wages of sin, the price of pride and prejudice, and the cost of suffering, betrayal, alienation, loss, yearning, and unrequited love. To read a Morrison novel is to become engaged in a world of the tragic and the revelatory, to prod (sometimes vigorously) at the soft dimple of human frailty, and to occasion characters as grooved in the noble quest for self-definition as they are determined to find comfort in commitment and community.

Her prose, undergirded by an Afro-magical realism, is an intoxicating expression of a poetic pre-lingualism where thought, memory, and image supersede the niceties of syntax. In short, Morrison is in charge of a profound literary verve, sitting erect, like some priestess, among the best of our current storytellers. Anyone seriously doubting her superior talents need simply ponder the definition of what constitutes literary genius and then include her name. Case closed.

Yet Morrison's novels, peopled by bleak, constricted characters whose outcomes are as drear as their beginnings, are often unsettling upon digestion. The pain and perversities of the people in her novels are dissected and magnified in an almost actionless narrative. Moral, political, and spiritual growth seem always impeded under the weight of an obliquely stated and foreboding determinism.

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