Toni Morrison’s Home, Reviewed
Date posted: Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Getting away from Oprah—a deeper look into the new novel.
It is sometimes difficult to separate Toni Morrison from the sort of built-in opinions that come part and parcel with being a perennial selection of Oprah’s Book Club. This is neither an attack on Dr. Morrison nor on Oprah Winfrey; rather, it is only necessary to point out that most readers do not equate a talk show host’s book club with the center of literary and intellectual production. One only needs to look at Jonathan Franzen’s infamous resistance to being included on this list when he published The Corrections. Of course, the problem of creating an adequate context for Toni Morrison is bigger than even Oprah Winfrey—or it is at least different. Because of progressive curricula and a greater emphasis on cultural diversity in the 1990s, many young readers first encountered Morrison through her best and most-read novels like The Bluest Eye or Beloved. These were are accessible enough for high school and college-level readers, and they are certainly more accomplished than works like Their Eyes were Watching God or any of the other books that Morrison might have been up against. Even still, there is the problem of tokenism—Beloved is a strong novel independent of racial or gender qualifiers, but weaker works like Song of Solomon or Paradise undermine this distinction. This is why Home has its work cut out for itself: it could either add another distinguished notch to Morrison’s body of work, or it could retreat back toward predictability. For the most part, Home delivers on the former while only occasionally touching upon the latter.
One of Morrison’s strongest qualities is her ability to wield symbols as well as any of the best American writers and certainly better than all of the rest. With the latest novel (which is really a novella masquerading as a longer work) she places the symbol and the notion of “home” under great scrutiny. Though it is both a simple title and theme, the complexity of the prose and the ideas contained within it help us to understand that it is not simplistic. To every individual and family, the term “home” is at once universal and decidedly specific; it is a unique physical place as well as a concept that we all understand. As banal as it may seem, the gap between the terms “house” and “home” become essential to the bifurcated journeys of main characters Frank and Cee Money. The structure in which Frank was born was abandoned when his parents needed to relocate to Georgia, and Cee was simply born on the road—an event that the cruel step-grandmother views as a bad omen. Together, the siblings have lived in several different places, and they spend most of their time in the same Southern Community, but as they approach adulthood, they realize that they never had a home to call their own. This fact drives Frank to the military and, eventually, Korea, while Cee runs off with the first city boy who shows up and takes a liking to her. But this is all back-story.
According to Herman Melville, all voyages are homeward bound. Whether or not this is true, it is a fact that several of the most important epics in Western Literature employ the theme of returning home. As Frank Money is a war hero (he earned a medal for his military service abroad), we might see him as an updated version of Odysseus or Aeneas, and just like the epic poems in which their tales were immortalized, we join Frank’s narrative in medias res, shortly after he returns “home” from war. There are many trials and tribulations (problems with alcohol, a lack of money, a few violent outbursts and a run-in with the cops) that Frank must confront on the road to South Georgia. These tests not only underscore his mid-century American odyssey, but they also intensify the ambivalence he feels toward the place of his youth and the people still occupying that town. Adding to the difficulty is the absence of his two best friends who lost their lives on the battlefields of Korea. (This is a rare moment where the details of this tightly woven story might not have been given enough thought: it seems unlikely that childhood friends would go through basic training together and serve side by side for the duration of their occupation.) In spite of the past traumas and the present conflicts on his cross-country journey, Frank still makes his way to Georgia in order to retrieve Cee from the menacing environment in which she is trapped. After coming to her rescue, he takes her back to the only place he can think of: the closest thing to a home that either of them ever knew.
Although time is experimented with over the course of the narrative, there is a nice and natural story arc with which Morrison fleshes out some of her larger ideas. The symmetry may seem dated, but the story that follows an Aristotelian course is significant—the reasons for departure are trumped by the causes of Frank’s return. This exploration of one’s homecoming not only celebrates the return of Frank to his community; it also resonates on a larger sociohistorical level. Few of Morrison’s readers might have actually come from the share-cropping communities in the Deep South, but most can identify with a vision of the old America that every generation since the Baby Boomers has run from. To this end, Home presents a vision of return that is not predicated on regression. When Frank and Cee eventually reunite and take up occupancy in the rented house abandoned by their itinerant parents, they are changed individuals whose unique experiences have altered their views and behaviors somewhat. The important distinction that Morrison makes, though, is that those respective metamorphoses cannot sever the bonds they share with their community and with each other.
Although Home is at times far-fetched and occasionally over-written, there is an emerging idea that speaks to the current successes of period dramas like Mad Men or even Boardwalk Empire. Morrison knows—probably better than most—the ills of the past and the dangers of blind nostalgia explored in those shows, but even an intellectual approach to the past cannot diminish the powerful call of one’s homecoming. By making Frank Money a lower-class soldier instead of some kind of modernized Odysseus, Morrison not only extends her tradition of telling the stories of the voiceless and the forgotten, but she also champions and campaigns for the values of one’s own people, of one’s own roots. During the intervening years since the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, we have collectively worked on cleaning out our closets and exposed the skeletons that take the shape of social ills like systematic racism, misogyny and homophobia. However, in the nomadic decades to follow, we have not found appropriate substitutes; there are no safe harbors in which we can drop our anchors, and so we continue a life at sea—we remain a nation filled with male and female Odysseuses—and have slowly begun to turn our attentions back toward the decimated structures we collectively call home.
It would be hard to believe that Toni Morrison did not expect her readers to extend her metaphors to such great lengths. All of the elements we struggle with today—the wars abroad, the flagging economy and the widespread loss of homes during the so-called Great Recession—they have left us like the Moneys. Home is not just a song about the arms and the man from Lotus, Georgia; it is a call to action, a goading work reminding its readers to tend to their own gardens, to turn back toward their own communities, and to repair the dilapidated structures of this land. In the end, Home is also a return to form for Morrison. The novella is fueled by the potent blend of fact and fantasy about times gone by, but the objective is both contemporary and eternal. There are few themes as immutable as the quest for home and there have been very few moments in our recent history when this notion could be discussed without cynicism. As conservative an idea as the preservation or restoration of home may seem to some readers, Morrison eludes this sort of reading by showing how radical the reinvention and rediscovery of home can be.[pinit]