Deep in the center of Toni Morrison's 11th novel, "God Help the Child," there's a section that resonates with the power of the author's finest work. Morrison is telling the story of Booker, a young man shattered by the abduction and murder of his brother, Adam, years before.
"Wasn't there a tribe in Africa that lashed the dead body to the back of the one who had murdered it?" Booker wonders in regard to Adam's killer. "That would certainly be justice — to carry the rotting corpse around as a physical burden as well as public shame and damnation."
In "God Help the Child," however, justice becomes a killer of its own. Not a killer of bodies per se but of the soul, of personality, of our abilities (or desire) to fly free of the past. It is Booker, after all, who ends up bound to his brother's corpse. "Don't you think he's tired?" his aunt Queen demands. "He must be worn out having to die and get no rest because he has to run somebody else's life. … Did you ever feel free of him?"
That's a compelling set of questions, representative of Morrison's signature concerns: family, legacy, the interplay of the present with history. And yet, other than its account of Booker's torment, "God Help the Child" is a curiously static work. The central character, a young woman named Bride, is little more than a cipher, and her relationship with Booker, who loves her then leaves her before loving her again, unfolds with little urgency or fire.
Bride is "[m]idnight black, Sudanese black," the daughter of a light-skinned woman who rejects her. "I used to pray she would slap my face or spank me just to feel her touch," she remembers of her mother. "I made little mistakes deliberately, but she had ways to punish me without touching the skin she hated."
The conflict recalls Morrison's first novel, "The Bluest Eye" (1970), in which an African American girl derided as ugly longs to be both beautiful and white. Also, as in "The Bluest Eye," "God Help the Child" involves the theme of childhood sexual abuse.
On the surface, this makes it tempting to read the new novel as a kind of squaring of the circle, an echo, a return. Morrison — who has won virtually every book award in the known universe, including the 1993 Nobel Prize for literature — is, at 84, nearing the end of a long career; what better way to give shape to the enterprise than to look back, consciously, to where it began?
Literature, though, doesn't work that way, or perhaps it's more accurate to say that every book must stand or fall on its own. And unlike "The Bluest Eye," which is a challenging novel, resisting easy resolution, "God Help the Child" rarely stirs into articulated life.
Instead, it reads like a set of talking points, archetypes and illustrations, with little of the messy complexities of experience. As a girl, Bride was a witness in a celebrated criminal case in which young children were abused at a school; in an early chapter, she drives to the penitentiary where, 15 years later, one of those convicted will be released.
The idea is to frame a set of connections, which extend from her to Booker and on to a semi-feral girl named Rain whom she meets in rural California: a cycle of abuse, of molestation. Original sin, I suppose, although the sin is far too common to be original, shocking as it remains.
Still, for all the force it ought to carry, "God Help the Child" never gets close enough to move us, to scar us with its curse, its stain. Bride goes in search of Booker once he leaves her; she is beaten, injured in an accident. It's dramatic, after a fashion, but eventually it strains credulity.
It's too convenient that all these characters have a shared burden, too much a matter of authorial manipulation, not nearly organic to the story Morrison means to tell. "Six months into the bliss of edible sex, free-style music, challenging books and the company of an easy undemanding Bride," she writes in easy, undemanding shorthand, "the fairy-tale castle collapsed into the mud and sand on which its vanity was built. And Booker ran away."
The fairy-tale reference is revealing because "God Help the Child" invokes a loose element of magical realism, perhaps to make up for its lack of depth. The further we get into the novel, the more Bride retracts to girlhood: not emotionally but physically. First, she loses her pubic hair, then her ear piercings close. Finally, her breasts disappear and she becomes as youthful in appearance as when she appeared in court.
This is a metaphor, of course — not a particularly subtle one — for her lost innocence, lost identity, dynamics that have long motivated Morrison's work. I think of Milkman Dead, who has his own brush with the magical at the end of "Song of Solomon," of Sethe and Beloved and their long, slow dance of death and fate.
In those novels, magic works as myth, as context, deepens the humanity. Not so with "God Save the Child," where it serves as little more than a distraction, a reminder of what's missing, of everything the book resists. Part of the problem is that Bride is not a particularly vivid character; an executive at a cosmetics company, she is as shallow as the stylish clothes she wears. She is all about surface, appearance, which makes her fade and disappear.
The same is true of the novel itself, which seems to want to say something about responsibility, about what we owe to (and how we damage) one another, the ties that make us who we are. "I told him to keep his brother close, mourn him as long as he needed to," Queen says to Bride, explaining Booker and his reticence. "I didn't count on what he took away from what I said."
God Help the Child
Alfred A. Knopf: 192 pp., $24.95