Book Review: “Jazz” (1992) by Toni Morrison

Archibald J. Motley, "Nightlife" (1943).

Archibald J. Motley, “Nightlife” (1943).

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 Jazz is a peculiar book because it is more a stylistic exercise than a regular novel. Morrison set out to create a work that would not just be about the jazz age, but actually become it; she did not design the novel’s structure to enhance meaning, but to equal it. Jazz is not a book you read for the plot (it’s all right there on the very first page, no twists beyond that point), but for the language, the rhythm pumping through the lines, the taste of it. In an interview with the Paris Review, Morrison said that it was the most intricate thing she had ever done, “a very simple story about people who do not know that they are living in the jazz age and to never use the word.”

The book has one plot (man cheats on his wife, shoots his mistress, wife shows up at the funeral to mutilate the corpse) told a number of times from different perspectives, like a melody that musicians do different improvisations on. We move away from and come back to the story again and again, turning the story over and discovering something new each time. Again, this is not a book to be read for the plot; the structure is its raison d’être. You already know what happens, so everything has to come from the different ways in which it is reinvented and rewritten.

Between these variations, there is a returning chorus about the city and what it means to people that move there from rural areas. Morrison focuses on ex-slaves, who were seeking total freedom and an escape from the past that had been holding them down for so long. These paragraphs are where Morrison’s writing truly shines; the city she describes is anonymous and deceptive, yet endlessly alluring to people who are looking to carve out an identity for themselves, to become the person they have always felt they could and should be. The city promises control and agency to those who have felt powerless for so long, an intoxicating promise that lures large numbers of people to seek their fortune within its walls.

I was fascinated by the ideas behind this book, but still had trouble getting through it; for all its ambition, it is far too long and would have worked much better as a novella. I soaked up the parts about the city, drunk on Morrison’s words, but there were also large parts that dragged on for so long that I lost focus altogether. Full marks for concept, but I have to deduct some points for execution. Even though it may not be Morrison’s best work, Jazz might still be worth a read if the idea sounds at all intriguing to you.

And lastly, a final quote from Morrison’s interview:

When you listen to their music—the beginnings of jazz—you realized that they are talking about something else. They are talking about love, about loss. But there is such grandeur, such satisfaction in those lyrics … they’re never happy—somebody’s always leaving—but they’re not whining. It’s as though the whole tragedy of choosing somebody, risking love, risking emotion, risking sensuality, and then losing it all didn’t matter, since it was their choice. Exercising choice in who you love was a major, major thing. And the music reinforced the idea of love as a space where one could negotiate freedom. [...] for some black people jazz meant claiming their own bodies. You can imagine what that must have meant for people whose bodies had been owned, who had been slaves as children, or who remembered their parents’ being slaves. Blues and jazz represented ownership of one’s own emotions.


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