Distinguished American novelist Toni Morrison is in her Manhattan apartment, talking about “outlaw women.” Dressed in a flowing black shirt and pants, with luminous strands of pearls around her neck and long, graying braids twisting down her back, Morrison chooses her words carefully, her voice low, soft and forceful.
“Outlaw women who don’t follow the rules are always interesting to me,” she begins, her eyes thoughtful and expressive, “because they push themselves, and us, to the edge. The women who step outside the borders, or who think other thoughts, define the limits of civilization, but also challenge it.”
A string of these women have peopled the novels of this Nobel laureate, from “Song of Solomon” to “Sula” and “Paradise.” But today, Morrison is talking about Celestial, the enigmatic, elusive presence in her new novel, “Love.”
Celestial haunts Bill Cosey, the autumnal patriarch who is the central character of “Love,” just like the faded memory of the glory days of his personal empire: a chic seaside resort for stylish, well-to-do blacks that flourished in a segregated America.
Cosey was a “race man,” one of those looked up to and admired in their heyday for making it in a white world, but then, years later, becoming “what some wings of the civil rights movement called bourgeois,” Morrison says, “so they had to defend themselves, and suffered some of the consequences of the successes of the civil rights movement.”
As segregation waned, “blacks did not have to depend on black businesses,” Morrison says, “so there were some gains and some losses.”
Lurking amid the remains of Cosey’s once-glamorous kingdom are many kinds of love -- along with the complex array of dependencies, attachments and appetites that sometimes pass for love.
Cosey has racked up more than a few of these since his rakish belle epoque. There is Heed the Night, named for a passage in Corinthians, the 11-year-old girl he chose as his bride, plucking her out of a settlement on the wrong side of the tracks. There is Christine, the granddaughter who leaves home and becomes an activist during the civil rights movement, but returns years later to claim what she views as her inheritance.
And there is Celestial, the majestic woman -- though she made her living as a prostitute -- who seemed to ask nothing more from Cosey than to stand as an equal at his side. And it is she who inspires in him the rarest feeling, of romantic love.
If “Love” seems to take a close look at the dynamics of relationships between men and women, “most novels do,” Morrison points out. As she wrote the book, she was thinking about “a certain kind of license that men have and that we give them, complicated roles that they may not be able to shoulder.”
“Patriarchy is assumed, but women have to agree to the role,” she says. “You have to say, ‘This is the most important person in my life.’ It’s not that [Cosey] gobbles them up, but they allow themselves to be eaten. When you’re able to stop blaming other people -- your father, your grandfather, your husband -- for your shortcomings or confusion or failure, then language is possible, and so is love.”
Morrison is sitting below a row of windows that let in a gentle morning light. Her apartment is filled with modern art: some drawings in ink by Robert Motherwell, a sensual sculpture of a carved wooden male torso partly covered with shimmering gold leaf, a Modernist still life by California artist Ray Saunders. Behind her is an African mask and a pastel portrait of herself as a very young woman.
She was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931. Her father was a ship welder. Past profiles of Morrison have described her grandfather as a slave or a sharecropper, but today, she eschews such biographical shorthand.
“I hate that stuff. I just hate it,” she says. “Everybody who’s an African American has to be rooted in that. My grandfather was a person, and what he really was was a musician. He played violin. He played dancing music. But that never makes it into the press.”
Morrison was a voracious reader. She dates her love of language and narrative to her childhood, in the days before mass media, when her family gathered together and told stories. As a child, “you sat and listened,” Morrison says. “There were stories for entertainment. We were encouraged to tell stories to adults and repeat stories we had heard.”
Her mother worked nights to see her through college. She graduated from Howard University in 1953, and after a seven-year marriage to an architect, she divorced and became a single mother to their two boys.
Working full time in the publishing industry, she found the time to write her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” a story that explores the ravaging impact of racism on the self-image of one fragile little girl. Later came “Song of Solomon,” a saga of two families that became a bestseller and placed her squarely on the map of popular fiction.
“Beloved,” a novel haunted by the ghost of a child killed to save her from slavery, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, and in 1993, Morrison became the first African American to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. In 1998, she published “Paradise,” about an assault by town patriarchs on a multiracial group of women living on the community’s outskirts: “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.”
Today, Morrison is charismatic and understated, as complex and multifaceted in conversation as the densely layered themes that wind through her novels. She teaches at Princeton, and perhaps it is no surprise that many of her most creative students want to be filmmakers.
Yet she doesn’t see the novel, its solitary, undistilled vision contrasting with the collaborative process of film, in much danger.
“It’s in a class by itself,” she said. “There are 26 letters in the alphabet. They’re like [musical] notes. Its reach can be right around the throat, or its fingers can play in the mind. It’s so intimate as an art form.”
“Love” is deeply anchored by the raw intimacy and vividly human characters that ground all of Morrison’s books. There is the moment when one of her favorite characters, the teenage Romen, can’t bring himself to take part in a gang rape. Instead, he frees the girl, converting the scorn and derision of his friends into self-loathing -- until he is redeemed with his sensual initiation by the sultry, feral Junior, one of the book’s more memorable characters.
And at the heart of the novel, there is Cosey, the self-made man who realized the dream of economic empowerment long before Malcolm X declared it a revolutionary strategy. As the civil rights movement reshapes the world around him, history itself becomes a protagonist, stepping into the question, as Morrison puts it, of “what to do about the consequences of centuries and centuries of racial oppression?”
“To reduce it to its simplest and most common denominator, race is at the heart of democracy,” she says. “These are not the struggles of minority groups. These are the struggles of the survival and flourishing of democracy.
“That’s the canvas of this book, upon which I hoped to paint these people who grew up around this resort, a kind of apogee of black entrepreneurship that could be self-contained. Everyone who could afford it went, and those who couldn’t listened or were proud of it.”
The book marks the resumption of a long working relationship with Robert Gottlieb, who edited such earlier Morrison works as “Beloved” and “Song of Solomon,” then decamped in 1987 to edit the New Yorker for six years.
Gottlieb finds “Love” remarkable. “So many characters, so much action is compressed into a rather short novel, yet it never seems frantic or over-compressed. You can be large without being long,” he says.
He recalls editing “Sula,” a Morrison novella so exquisitely crafted it was, in Gottlieb’s words, “like a sonnet.”
Traces of that spare poetry thread through “Love.” Like the moment when Celestial walks naked into the sea.
“She’s unfettered and unencumbered,” Morrison says. “I wanted that scene. She goes into the water, she goes into the night. She’s fluffing her hair. I wanted the notion of a free female, or a licensed one, anyway.”