Love, By Toni Morrison, Read by the Author, Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2003
Some books lend themselves rather easily to being an audiobook. They are clearly written, concise in language, generally concrete, and consist of a limited number of easily delineated characters. Practically speaking, audiobooks are a creation for people to “read” certain works while doing something else — be it riding on a train, driving across the state, working around the house, or whatever.
By this criterion, then, Toni Morrison’s latest work, Love, should be a disappointing audiobook. Ms. Morrison does not strive for easily understood characters and situations; in that regard, I can say she is a great naturalist writer. Not in the typical fashion that term is used, but rather in the sense that people in real life rarely greet each other by saying, “Hello there, sister of mine, from whom I’ve been estranged lo these many long years.” Characters show up in Love with very little explanation of who they are and what their precise relationship is to the other characters.
At first, I thought this was a weakness of the audiobook and wondered if I had been distracted while listening or if there was any way for me to back up, listen again, and find clarity. Then I spoke with someone I considered to be a perceptive reader who had had the exact same experience while she read the print version of the book. Readers of Morrison’s later books will recognize the rather nonlinear style she employs, shifting time and place and perspective with little to orient the reader. Instead, you are forced to play a game of catch up.
Which might be a damaging technique in an author less skilled than Morrison, but actually plays well to her strengths. While some might consider it a bit of an insult to categorize Morrison’s work as mysteries, they do seem to often circle around hidden secrets and a past that won’t stay dead. Items introduced early in the book, such as two packed and locked suitcases, or why the character of Heed Cosey refers to her husband as Papa, flit through the book, only to finally be explained in the last twenty pages.
The book tells the tale of May, Christine, Heed, Junior, Vida and L, all women obsessed with or in the thrall of Bill Cosey, owner of a famous hotel and resort. Cosey’s motto is “Always the best good time,” and living down a past of his own, he strives to live his life in the present enjoyment and to pass along that attitude to all his guests. May is his daughter-in-law. Christine is his granddaughter and May’s daughter. Heed is his second wife. Junior is a young homeless con-girl Heed hires ostensibly to help her write her memoirs. Vida once worked at the Cosey Hotel. And L once worked in the kitchen of the Cosey Hotel and occasionally pops up in the book to narrate some segments in first person.
You might need to know this beforehand to have a greater understanding of what happens. Heed, it comes out later in the book, was also a childhood friend of Christine and Cosey married her when she was at the ripe age of eleven. That will also be a fact you would bear well in mind before reading.
The story focuses around two interconnected plotlines. Heed and Christine, hating each other’s guts, live in the same house and both live to figure out a way to dispose of the other’s claim to the inheritance of said house. Cosey’s will was rather vague as to who got what, but for the moment the house seems legally to belong to Heed. She, however, is tied to Christine by her own infirmity and old age, while Christine is shackled to Heed, doing all the menial work around the house, because she is broke. Junior, a crafty homeless woman intent on taking advantage of both women, comes to live with them and seduces fourteen year old Romen, a young town boy who is the grandson of Vida and who does odd jobs around the house Heed and Christine fight so bitterly over.
As the story of Heed and Christine’s machinations against each other and the story Junior’s seduction of Romen both move along, each plot thread winding itself tighter around the other, little nuggets of information about the past shake themselves out. In the beginning, these information bites have the salutatory effect of dispelling whatever mistaken assumptions the reader might have had about the various relationships, but as the novel progresses, they serve to muddy not the clean arc of events, but rather the motivation of each character. Which of the two old friends, Heed or Christine is more to blame for their current hatreds? At various points in the reading, you will find yourself taking first one side against the other, then switching allegiances, then ultimately blaming outside circumstances and other characters more.
And there is plenty of blame to go around. Morrison’s book is chock full of evil deeds. In the shine and glow of her Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, Morrison has taken on in my mind a sort of subconscious uplifting literary purity and nobleness. This book easily dispelled that notion. By disc two’s scene of a gangbang rape, you are shocked out of such reverential attitudes and brought harshly back to earth by Morrison’s earthy material. Don’t let the intelligent style of her presentation fool you. Morrison’s work still maintains the fierce passions that filled her earlier work like Sula and The Bluest Eye.
It is the slow peeling of this onion of Bill Cosey and the world he surrounded himself with that tantalizes the reader further and further along, waiting for new revelations of misdeeds and the bright understanding those revelations bring. And with each new disclosure, the ante is upped until each character is stripped bare for us. Those with whom we might have at one time sympathized are despised; those who we might have loathed are shown to be only misguided, acting more out of personal hurt than malice. Along the way we are given not only the history of the family, but the greater world that often intrudes on Cosey’s Resort despite his wishes.
The story unfolds over the course of seventy or so years, starting with Cosey’s first marriage and the founding of his resort in the midst of the Depression and follows the fortunes of both the family and the town that surrounds his resort, a sort of localized extended family. Through the lives of Cosey’s daughter-in-law, May, and granddaughter, Christine, we are given two twinned and diverging perspectives on those years of upheaval in the black community. May goes slightly cracked over the notion that black civil rights unrest will lead the black community to raze Cosey’s Hotel and Resort; she becomes paranoid that Huey Newton and the Panthers are right outside her door and takes several peculiar actions to protect both herself and the resort. Christine on the other hand, adrift without Heed, falls into one current fashion after another, getting sucked up in revolutionary sloganeering then dropping precipitously in the void that followed.
What Morrison creates in her best work is the ideal marrying of a story that intrigues and characters who respond and who grow realistically within the framework of their lives. When, near the book’s end, Heed and Christine’s war abruptly ends, it is a perfectly natural and understandable cease-fire. When, as the book closes, we see in the past the seeds planted which will grow into their hatreds, it suddenly makes sense in the strangest fashion. And Morrison saves a nice twist that changes everything again for the books’ final pages. Love is a short book, though not one to be read quickly. It is a story, stripped to the bone, illuminating without the preachiness that marred Paradise, the follow up to her Nobel winning Beloved.
What is striking is how little love actually permeates the book. It’s not that the characters don’t love each other; it’s that it is rarely displayed by some and in many cases it is warped and perverted by a sometimes self-destructive self-love. Junior’s self-love is so strong that even after she comes to believe Romen loves her and she loves him, she still can’t see him as he really is, can’t understand him or why he might object to her machinations. Cosey seems to love no one so much as his own sense of enjoyment and pleasure. Heed and Christine, despite spending nearly the entirety of the book at war, once felt a love so strong it almost fully explains the fierceness of their battles. Morrison describes this early love with real beauty:
“It’s like that when children fall for one another. On the spot, without introduction…. If such children find each other before they know their own sex, or which one of them is starving, which well fed; before they know color from no color, kin from stranger, then they have found a mix of surrender and mutiny they can never live without….When that’s the case, separation cuts to the bone. And if the breakup is plundered, too, squeezed for a glimpse of blood, shed for the child’s own good, then it can ruin a mind.”
As icing on the cake, Love is read by the author herself. Her reading is as straightforward as one can expect from an author. Morrison neither takes any risks in her reading style nor does she fully inhabit her characters. This may in fact increase the confusion common in the beginning of her work. Every character comes out with Morrison’s smoothly elegant rendering whether it be the college educated Christine or Heed who didn’t even graduate from high school. The author’s voice is a beautiful instrument, though one gets the impression during the reading that she’s not using it to its full capacity. It hardly matters though. Morrison’s power is in the depth of her writing, not in the fullness of her vocal range. And on that score, Love is a compelling and worthwhile listen.