January 13, 2016

First Time Around: "The Bluest Eye," by Toni Morrison

First Time Around: An essay series by Chris Schahfer

The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye
By Toni Morrison, 1970
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Hi, and welcome to my 2016 review series, First Time Around! This year, I'll look at first efforts by famous authors. Some of these firsts have become quite famous as the years went on, while others were overshadowed by later works. Toni Morrison's as good of an author to start on as anyone, so let's start with her.

Toni Morrison has become pretty well established among the modern pantheon of great writers. So much so that readers might be used to her style of writing, her steadily unfolding novels so full of horror and beauty, usually told in the third person, which allows her to keep a distance when she needs but zoom into her characters if the moment calls for it. It's to the point where a Toni Morrison novel that isn't firing on all cylinders - take Tar Baby or Home - feels like something of a rehash. If I've got one gripe about her otherwise great novels, it's that she sometimes leans a little too heavily on her usual structure. You read through her work and know when she'll dip into the backstory, when a character will change her mind about another, when the trauma from the past will be unearthed.

I think this is why I find Morrison just the slightest bit frustrating. No doubt she has six or seven great novels to boast of, and no doubt the Bluest Eye is among them, yet some of her novels lean a little too much on her preferred ways of writing. This is most egregious with Jazz, which is half gorgeous and invigorating writing on the music of the same name (which is my favorite type of music, so I'm about it) and half a retread of Song of Solomon. So even when she falls a little into her formulas, her strength for characters, her gorgeous prose, her skill for wrenching guts and her sheer overwhelming intellect make her worth reading. But she does fall a little into her formulas, which makes me come to treasure unusual novels like the dual narrative of A Mercy or the running-in-the-dark stream of consciousness that she employs in her famous Beloved. Utterly none of that detracts from the argument you could make that she's America's best living novelist - not my favorite, but she's one of the few who has mastered prose, character, pacing, and effect - but it's definitely proof that there's no such thing as an ideal novelist, not even among the greats.

This knowledge of how Morrison likes to operate makes her first novel, the Bluest Eye, a shock. It's radically different from the style she developed later. Just as intense, sure, and focused on themes of race and gender like her later books, but her approach to it is nothing like her approach to Beloved or Song of Solomon. She went as far as to denounce the novel in a later forward, claiming she would've written it differently if she could write it again. The novel was a success, earning her an enormous amount of acclaim and attention right out of the gate, and it's usually considered a modern classic. So it's strange to note that Morrison wasn't happy with it, but the evidence of that is all over her later work. Once again, this is nothing like any of the books she published afterwards, making it as valuable as a question of "what-if" as it is as a work of literature.

Before I get into this novel's strange form, a brief summary. It centers on Pecola Breedlove, a young African-American girl who wants to be white. She is taken in by the MacTeer family, whose daughters Claudia and Frieda befriend her. We learn Pecola was raped and impregnated by her father, in an utterly horrifying sequence told in uncomfortably close perspective. It's also revealed that her parents were servants for wealthy white people. Throughout the novel, the young Pecola's sanity erodes, which sets up a pretty scary climax. Complex racial dynamics play out across this book, especially as they play out across class and gender lines; along with Pecola's desire to be white comes a terrifying internalized racism, acted out by children no less. While there are some lighter moments, including a funny scene of prostitutes shooting the breeze on a stoop, this is a pretty heady novel on a whole.

Now, as to the novel's form. As I mentioned before, it's nothing like her later novels. While she would experiment with multiple perspectives and timelines in Paradise and A Mercy, the Bluest Eye is the only Morrison novel that fractures chronology. It's told in nonlinear time: she starts in the middle of the action, leaps back, jumps forward, doubles back again. Naturally, this creates a disorienting effect, as does Morrison's method of narrating this novel. Pecola is only offered a single chapter to tell her own story, although she is the narrator's central character. Instead, she switches between the first-person perspective of Claudia and a third-person perspective of whichever characters she happens to need. To cap off the disorientation, there are the chapter titles, excerpts from the Dick and Jane books whose words run together in a terrifying monolog.

In some ways, it's easy to see why Morrison chose to abandon this confusing form. The fractured chronology and shifts in perspective makes this the most overtly Faulknerian of her works, and she doesn't like being compared to Faulkner although she loves his fiction. Not to rip on Faulkner, who I think is a great novelist, but nothing comparable to him is going to be an accessible read. You could also object to Pecola's complete lack of agency as a protagonist. I recently was part of a discussion that compared Morrison to Faulkner, which is where I got all charged up to write this review, and one of the participants raised the good point that she's a human plot device. Morrison would drop this approach to characterization off the nearest convenient cliff as soon as her next novel Sula, and developed a series of complex and compelling protagonists. They're even in her lesser novels; I've mentioned my relative dissatisfaction with Tar Baby, but that sure wasn't because of her characters. Pecola doesn't engage in the strange mix of self-discovery and self-defeat - a mix that never, ever resolves - that you find in her later novels. The difference between the arcs of, say, this and Song of Solomon make me realize the flaws in my beloved descent-into-madness story.

Yet I do wonder if Morrison didn't lose something when she abandoned this more fractured form. Look, the characters and their relationships aren't anywhere near as complicated as her later novels, which also employ disturbing imagery to captivating effect. Yet the raw confusion of this novel still gets me, still nags at me, still haunts me long after I've read it. Of course, this is also true of Beloved, but Beloved's impact isn't the same as the Bluest Eye's. Beloved makes its impact through a carefully crafted argument about racial dynamics, the legacy of slavery on America, and the sheer horrifying power of motherly love. The Bluest Eye is closer to a scream than a carefully realized argument, but the bottom line is there's something in screams that hits us as readers, and really as appreciators of the arts in general. I guess I'm saying there's a rawness at work here, one that in some ways leaves her later novels, and I wonder what would've happened if she allowed herself time to cultivate this particular style.

Of course, it's entirely too late to say now. Toni Morrison long ago established her way of writing novels, and now that she's over eighty, it's hard to imagine her going back to it. It's surprising and enlightening to double back on the work of one of one of America's best loved and best established novelists and discover how she wrote before things set in a little. It's also hard to see why she would want to distance herself from such a powerful style and what she would've done differently. I personally don't even have too much issue with Pecola's passivity, at least not as it affects my reading of the novel. Don't get me wrong, it's disturbing. This novel was meant to disturb you. But her paralysis in the face of everything that happens to her helps drill home Morrison's more disturbing points. Subtle it isn't, but sometimes a writer doesn't need to be subtle. You need a sledgehammer for some jobs, and the way I see it, the Bluest Eye's commentary on beauty standards is one of them.

Besides, the first three Toni Morrison novels are my favorite period of her work. There was a sense in these three that absolutely anything was possible that might've been part and parcel of her being a young writer. She tries absolutely anything in these books - you get treasure hunts and creepy small towns and murder cults and everything else that resists the idea of what we might refer to derogatorily as serious literature. Put another way, she indulged herself as a storyteller back then, let things stretch out in all sorts of directions. Did she get better? In some ways - you can certainly argue Beloved and Paradise are as good as the first three, if not better. But she never seemed as full of life as she did in the early days, and that's worth as much as anything else.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, January 13, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |