The recent brouhaha over American literature and the Nobel Prize, ignited by Horace Engdahl of the Nobel Prize jury, has stirred up lots of emotion parochial and patriotic but thankfully, at least not yet, patriarchal. No matter what one thinks of the fact that America was characterized as “too isolated, too insular,” one thing can be said for the Nobel committee: they got it absolutely right when they selected Toni Morrison in 1993.
Morrison’s new novel, A Mercy, is a lyrical revelation, a book that solidifies her reputation as one of our finest writers, living or otherwise, and is one of the best, most powerful novels of 2008. Some of Morrison’s hallmark characteristics are in evidence: the plot moves forward in non-chronological fits and starts, with events being revealed from multiple, not always meshing, points of view, a story that centers on slavery and race in America from an historical perspective, and a narrative style, language and execution that challenges the reader to be at her/his very best.
Set in late seventeenth century colonial America, this is the story of Florens, a young slave, who is reluctantly accepted as compensation in a bad business deal by Dutch trader Jacob Vaark, and the life she comes to live on Vaark’s small New York estate. The lives of the women, both fellow slaves, Lina and Sorrow, and Vaark’s wife, are minutely recounted in all their burdensome drudgery, replete with sorrow and despair nearly beyond human endurance. The sheer brutality of their lives is immense, emphatically underscored by a devastating small pox epidemic.
In this video, Morrison herself briefly discusses the main character and how the plot comes together.
In a novel this brief, it would be telling in the worst way to give away important plot details. Suffice it to say that the story builds inexorably, with almost spiral-like undulations, to a conclusion that is as powerful as it is devastating. In her portrayal of characters, masterful manipulation of time, and head-on confrontation with race in America, there are echoes of that other American Nobel laureate, William Faulkner. The ultimate ambivalence of the title itself, in its final revelation by Florens’ mother, brings to mind another award winning major American novel of the 1970’s.
The criteria for the Nobel Prize in Literature are open to interpretation and analysis. From a quick glance at the list of American Nobel laureates – Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Pearl S. Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czeslaw Milosz, and Morrison – one might glean a certain commonality of concern particular to the human condition as a whole, often as seen through the lens of oppressed peoples. Whatever the criteria, in theory or execution, 10 Americans of the 108 laureates is nothing to sneeze at. This is a large world and it must be shared, virtually and otherwise.
And that, of course, is exactly the point of said commonality and no one illustrates that better, with more force, beauty, and resonance, than Toni Morrison. A Mercy builds upon a legacy that can make us all proud, Americans and Nobel jury members alike.