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Toni Morrison – Jazz

Title: Jazz
Author: Toni Morrison
Year: 1992

Toni Morrison is an author I think most people have heard about (she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993), but that I haven’t had the opportunity to read until now. I picked up Jazz more or less randomly in a second-hand book shop a couple of years ago, but didn’t get around to reading it until recently. After turning the last page, I’m still not very clear what I think about either the book or the author, but I will try to do my best to let you understand why this is so.

The story is set in the 1920s in Harlem, although threads of the story go back in time much longer than that. The main characters are Joe Trace, a middle-aged salesman who has an extra-marital affair with a young girl named Dorcas. When she leaves him for a younger man, Joe shoots her at a party, but because of the commotion, only Dorcas herself knows who shot her. She refuses medical attention and tells everybody that everything will be clear tomorrow, but then she’s already dead. Violet, Joe’s wife, is known to be a bit crazy and attempts to disfigure Dorcas’ face on the funeral.

The novel itself is a patchwork of individual stories that form a larger picture that only takes shape towards the end. Some episodes are hard to understand, but the creative style makes the reading enjoyable most of the time. However, I cannot claim I understand the novel, especially when I read something like this on Wikipedia:

The novel deliberately mirrors the music of its title, with various characters “improvising” solo compositions that fit together late a whole work. The tone of the novel also shifts with these compositions, from bluesy laments to up beat, sensual ragtime. The novel also utilizes the call and response style of Jazz music, allowing the characters to explore the same events from different perspectives.

What? I feel that these aspects of the novel are completely beyond me and perhaps that’s the reason why the rating isn’t higher than it is. I think that a more thorough reading might have given me more, but I did not have the feeling that I was missing a lot when I read it. This novel is one example of a case when I think critics perhaps exaggerate phenomena that are indeed present in the text, but not to the extent they claim. It should of course be mentioned that I know little of both Toni Morrison herself and of the jazz on which the novel supposedly models itself.

I would like to end this review by saying that I don’t regret reading the book, but I can’t say that it told me very much about the author. Perhaps I should read something else by her before I form a definite opinion, because it’s clear that there is something underneath the intertwining narratives and sometimes extravagante language, I’m just not sure exactly what it is.

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