Home (Knopf, 160 pp., $24.00) Toni Morrison’s tenth novel, is about the ironically named Frank Money (he doesn’t have any), an embittered, alcoholic veteran of the Korean War who travels south through segregated America to return to Lotus, Ga., the “home” of the book’s title, where “there [is] no future, just long stretches of killing time.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the description of Lotus could also serve as an account of the island occupied by Homer’s lotus-eaters. For more than four decades, Ms. Morrison’s fiction has been populated by ghosts and monsters—both real and metaphorical. She turns to the recent past, thereby conjuring the very distant past, in order to communicate something people don’t know about the present. When it is successful, her writing has a sense of myth.
The Odysseus of Home, Frank, makes his journey in order to save his ailing sister from an archetypically evil employer rather than rescue his wife from a throng of sexually frustrated suitors, but Ms. Morrison is most certainly channeling The Odyssey’s familiar premise. As America’s most celebrated writer—she is a Nobel laureate (the only American in 20 years and the first black woman ever to earn such an honor), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and, most recently, the Presidential Medal of Freedom—she has more than earned whatever subtle revision of the Western canon she’d like to make, but unfortunately, Home—which is just under 150 pages with very wide margins—falls short of its epic aspirations, coming across as simultaneously overwritten and unfinished.
The story begins with Frank restrained in a hospital bed, feigning sleep so that the orderlies will loosen his wrist straps. He’s received a letter about his sister that reads, simply, “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.” We do not yet know who wrote the letter or what’s wrong with Frank’s sister (or even what her name is). In time, we discover that she is called Cee, and that she has taken a job with a Dr. Beauregard Scott—“Dr. Beau”—a eugenicist who likes to hire childless young black women in order to perform sexual experiments on them, and that the letter was written by Sarah, an older assistant employed by Dr. Beau.
“In time” is putting it lightly; it takes most of the novel to learn all of this. One of Ms. Morrison’s great strengths as a novelist is how she assumes that her readers are as smart as she is, and that they’ll go along with her on a story that is, at least initially, entirely opaque. Home, however, is too often stopped dead in its tracks by awkward narrative devices. The book, which is predominantly written in the third person, is interspersed with first-person chapters printed in italicized script. We learn that the “I” in these sections is Frank, and that he’s talking to Ms. Morrison’s stand-in, some anonymous presence—“you”—who is writing his story. In the first of these sections, the one that opens the novel, he describes sneaking into a farm in Georgia with his sister, where they admire a group of horses standing on their hind legs “like men.” The image is captivating, if less poignant than Ms. Morrison seems to believe (she employs the phrase “they stood like men” several times in this chapter), but the scene quickly becomes violent as the men accompanying the horses come into view, stuffing a body into a shallow grave:
One foot stuck up over the edge and quivered, as though it could get out, as though with a little effort it could break through the dirt being shoveled in. We could not see the faces of the men doing the burying, only their trousers; but we saw the edge of a spade drive the jerking foot down to join the rest of itself.
The casual violence of this passage is as strong and unsettling as anything Ms. Morrison has written, but however fascinating her cold detachment might be here, it is spoiled by the contrived device of Frank talking directly to the author: “Since you’re set on telling my story, whatever you think and whatever you write down, know this: I really forgot about the burial. I only remembered the horses. They were so beautiful. So brutal. And they stood like men.” Frank’s interjections become increasingly disruptive as the novel goes on, eventually taking on the form of a kind of self-handicap on Ms. Morrison’s part, as though the shortcomings of her novel were intentional, all part of the stylistic game she’s playing with the reader through the metafictional ruminations of Frank. At one point, as Frank sits behind the “whites only” section on a passenger train that is stopped at a grocery, the store’s owners kick out one of the black passengers and beat him as his wife tries to intervene. The third-person narrator says that Frank believes the man will later beat his wife because her attempts to help only bruised his ego further. First-person Frank cuts in, saying, “I don’t think you know much about love. Or me.” This postmodern planting of the seeds of doubt in the narrator’s reliability only weakens the story and steals away its momentum.
Self-guarding and heavy-handedness are rare for Ms. Morrison; her work is predominantly about balance. Here she is in a 1987 interview with the New York Times, published just after the release of her fifth novel, Beloved: “There are certain emotions that are useful for the construction of a text and some are too small. Anger is too tiny an emotion to use when you’re writing, and compassion is too sloppy. Almost everything that makes you want to write, or feel like writing, is not useful in the act of writing. So it’s the mediation between those two states, the compulsion and all those feelings, that make you compelled.’’
With Frank constantly breaking in, it is like Ms. Morrison is battling with the hero of her own story (Ms. Morrison’s writing was, in fact, disrupted in real life by the death of her son Slade, to whom the book is dedicated). In the longest of Frank’s first-person interludes, he wrests control of the writing completely. This section contains the most detailed description of the war that haunts Frank throughout the novel. Still, that description is hardly evocative of anything: “Korea,” Frank says. “You can’t imagine it because you weren’t there. You can’t describe the bleak landscape because you never saw it. First let me tell you about cold. I mean cold. More than freezing, Korea cold hurts, clings like a kind of glue you can’t peel off.”
I get what she’s doing here, privileging the sheer violence of the place over its physical attributes, but landscape description has always been one of Ms. Morrison’s greatest strengths as a novelist. Consider her portrait of New York, from 1992’s Jazz:
Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see looking faces and it’s not easy to tell which are people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is shadow where any blasé thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep.
The writing is so passionate and playful, the narrator is literally cut off by an excited hiccup. Compare that to this passage about Frank’s homecoming:
There were no sidewalks, but every frontyard and backyard sported flowers protecting vegetables from disease and predators—marigolds, nasturtiums, dahlias. Crimson, purple, pink, and China blue. Had these trees always been this deep, deep green?
Like Whitman, Ms. Morrison approaches pastoral imagery through the composition of lists, creating a kind of fugue of objects, associations, adjectives and people. But here, instead of enacting the environment she describes, she simply rattles off the names of flowers.
If Ms. Morrison’s writing does not possess its usual force, worse is that there are characters who serve no real purpose. Mike and Stuff, Frank’s war buddies, are almost comically underdeveloped, only referred to as dying bodies in a battlefield. Frank’s lover Lily, whom he leaves in order to find his sister, is mostly glossed over through broad explanations like “When he woke up with her, his first thought was not the welcome sting of whiskey,” and the occasional line describing their early days together as “glorious.” We can infer that the sex was good because the one time it is mentioned we learn that Frank refers to their lovemaking as “entering the kingdom between her legs.” No more detail is offered. Compare that to the ease with which Morrison has, in the past, covered the arc of a relationship in a few short paragraphs, or, as with the collapse of the marriage of Ruth and Macon Dead in 1977’s Song of Solomon, a single sentence:
Fifteen years of regret at not having a son had become the bitterness of finally having one in the most revolting circumstances.
“Revolting circumstances,” a melancholy image simply allowed to simmer in the reader’s mind, is as subtle and alluring a phrase as “kingdom between her legs” is crude.
That the breakup of Lily and Frank was “more of a stutter than a single eruption” just doesn’t make for very good reading. He leaves her to go find his sister, choosing “not to think of this trip as a breakup. A pause he hoped.” We don’t see Lily again.
Dr. Beau, Cee’s employer, introduces a certain amount of tension as the kind of eerie villain—both misanthropic and pitiable—that Ms. Morrison is so good at writing (Guitar from Song of Solomon, Cholly from The Bluest Eye), but the final confrontation between him and Frank is so lacking in urgency that it makes the central conflict of the novel—preventing Cee’s death—anticlimactic. After spending the novel traveling, Frank simply walks into the doctor’s office, snatches up his sister and walks out:
Sarah and the doctor stood locked in an undecipherable stare. As Frank passed around them with his motionless burden, Dr. Beau cast him a look of anger-shaded relief. No theft. No violence. No harm. Just the kidnapping of an employee he could easily replace.
I found myself asking a question I never thought would come to mind with Ms. Morrison’s fiction: what’s the point?