Alfred A. Knopf: 148 pp., $24
I’ve long admired Toni Morrison as a moral visionary, but her fiction, not so much. Of her nine novels, three — “Song of Solomon” (1977), “Beloved” (1987) and 2008’s “A Mercy” — are masterpieces, yet the others, particularly the post-Nobel books “Paradise” (1997) and “Love” (2003) can be so stylized as to veer dangerously close to self-parody. Anyone who’s read her in any depth may understand what I’m referring to: those stentorian rhythms, the biblical cadences, the characters who function more as archetypes than flesh-and-blood.
I say this not to minimize her achievements — three masterpieces in a lifetime are three more than most authors produce. Still, more often than not, her stature (the most recent American Nobel literature laureate, she was named last week as one of 13 recipients of this year’s Presidential Medal of Freedom) prevents us from seeing her as a writer, which is to say as fallible, prone as all writers are to the excitations and limitations of, in Faulkner’s famous phrase, her “own little postage stamp of native soil.”
Morrison’s 10th novel, “Home,” highlights this issue; it is a thin book with some beautiful writing that ultimately comes off as insubstantial and contrived. The story of Frank Money, a black Korean War vet on his way back to Georgia, “Home” refracts the early 1950s through an individual filter, although the most striking thing about the novel may be how little it succeeds in drawing us in. Frank is an angry man, an outsider inclined to violence, a drinker and a brawler who watched his two best friends die in the war. As the book begins, he is in a hospital mental ward, bound to a bed, contemplating his escape, although when escape finally comes, it is so easy, effortless almost, that we wonder how it could have ever been in doubt.
This lack of narrative tension recurs throughout “Home” as Frank makes his way to Chicago and then south, toward his hometown of Lotus, “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield. At least on the field there is a goal, excitement, daring, and some chance of winning along with many chances of losing.… In Lotus … there was no future, just long stretches of killing time. There was no goal other than breathing, nothing to win and, save for somebody else’s quiet death, nothing to survive or worth surviving for.”
The irony is that Lotus is the only place he can take his sister Cee, near death in a suburb of Atlanta. She is the one person about whom he cares, the beacon that pulls him onward, the lodestar for the journey, both interior and exterior, that gives shape to this book.
There’s a certain Old Testament-style simplicity to such a story, with its archetypal concerns: home, family, belonging, exile. These are themes to which Morrison has returned throughout her career, but here they don’t challenge so much as they confirm. Confirm what? On the most basic level that this is a Toni Morrison novel, although that sounds snarkier than I intend. Still, it may be the most I can say for “Home,” which reads like a pastiche, a writer returning to the well once too often, operating less from narrative urgency than a kind of muscle memory.
As she has in the past, Morrison relies on a multiplicity of perspectives, shifting between short sections narrated by Frank and more extended third-person set pieces that move from him to Cee, their stepgrandmother Lenore and a clutch of other characters. Among the few compelling dynamics is the antipathy Frank feels toward the book’s third-person “author.” (Morrison leaves his or her identity open-ended.) “Earlier,” he argues, reflecting on a scene from the beginning of the book, “you wrote about how sure I was that the beat-up man on the train to Chicago would turn around when they got home and whip the wife who tried to help him. Not true. I didn’t think any such thing. What I thought was that he was proud of her but didn’t want to show how proud he was to the other men on the train. I don’t think you know much about love.... Or me.”
That’s fascinating, the novel echoing back upon itself, its voices in conflict, as if to express the tension at the heart of the impulse to tell a story. What is narrative, after all, but a frame, an attempt to make meaning out of the chaos of the world? It’s all about interpretation, how we read or connect events that are, in and of themselves, not connected, the through-lines that we follow, the unities we draw. And yet, despite the power of this setup, Morrison never makes us feel it, never allows us to become engaged.
Part of the problem is that everything happens too quickly, with no real sense of what’s at stake. But even more it is the author’s — or the narrator’s — distance, the sense that Morrison is not fully invested in this fictional world. Even in the culminating scene, when Frank and Cee right an ancient wrong, we can’t help feeling disassociated, as if this were a structural inevitability rather than a narrative one.
Ultimately, the impression with which “Home” leaves us is of a novel that, like the town it encircles, is “much less than enough.” Or maybe it’s that the book seems tired, as if it were something we’ve read before. Either way, it leaves us wanting, without the discovery, the recognition of how stories can enlarge us, that defines Morrison’s most vivid work. “You can keep on writing,” Frank warns the nameless narrator late in the novel, “but I think you ought to know what’s true.” There’s that moral sensibility again, perhaps the author’s most essential aspect. But in “Home,” she fails to make us care enough for it to resonate.