Andrew Lanham on Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child
Like fantastic prisms made of words, Toni Morrison’s novels each refract a singular history into a rainbow array of passions and perspectives. Her texts dissect the myriad personalities and possibilities contained in a neighborhood, a family, or an individual life. In Morrison’s Paradise, for example, we glimpse the fictional town of Ruby not as a coherent community but only through the multitude of disparate viewpoints that emerge when traumatic events fracture the town apart. Dwelling in this tragically divided world, Morrison’s characters fantasize a lost whole, a holistic community that never was nor will ever be. They embark on spiritual quests for communion, but their lives remain as fragmented as Morrison’s prismatic narrative form.
Morrison’s latest novel, God Help the Child, is not her best-wrought prism. Split into a series of short monologues by various first-person narrators and a handful of chapters in a limited third person, God Help the Child follows Bride, a “midnight black” woman rejected by her light-skinned mother, as she comes to terms with childhood trauma and works to repair her relationship with her lover Booker. It’s clear how Morrison intends her characters’ lives to intersect and overlap, as Bride, Booker, and a number of others all relive scenes of sexual violence. But over the first three quarters of the novel the pattern never quite coalesces. Characters remain uncharacteristically flat for a Morrison novel, without the half-hidden selves that make Pilate in Song of Solomon or the unnamed narrator of Jazz so compelling. And while houses have their own personalities in Morrison’s other fiction, as if they were characters too, Bride’s southern California apartment and the small town up north where she seeks renewal appear strangely ahistorical, like the “artificial pond” in the park where Bride goes to think.
The last quarter of God Help the Child, though, does coalesce into a compelling pattern of lives and meanings, and it goes a long way, politically and aesthetically, toward justifying all the rest. As Bride and Booker begin resonating at deeper levels, they finally pay more than mere lip service to the past. Guided by Booker’s aunt Queen, whose own family is as scattered as Bride’s, what they achieve is not catharsis, but at least confrontation.
It’s tempting at a few moments in the novel — though decidedly not in others — to read the aging Queen as a stand-in for the novelist, each of her characters a wayward child. This would be to see Morrison the writer as the guide, the third term who helps her fictional offspring try to rebuild themselves and their relationships. All of Morrison’s fiction stages a dialectic between broken ruins and organic community, what the St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott calls “cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars.” Morrison’s very narrative form, then, split by a prism and coalescing in a pattern, envisions a collective politics capable of both reconstructing the past and imagining renewal in the future. In God Help the Child, Morrison recalibrates that politics for the sexual, racial, and economic violence of our own present.
Set ambiguously around the present day, God Help the Child is the most contemporary story Morrison has published. She writes in a modern, vernacular American English shorn of the Faulknerian grandeur so distinctive of Beloved. Bride’s friend Brooklyn calls things “the bomb.” Cell phones create both lifelines and missed connections between characters, though they don’t yet buzz from social media. With Bride’s job as an executive at a billion-dollar cosmetics company headquartered in an artificial city, the novel’s particular version of the quest for communal and spiritual rebirth seems targeted for the first time in Morrison’s oeuvre at the corporatized political landscape of today. A fashion consultant helps Bride accentuate her skin color and curves with simple white dresses to market herself to CEOs and movie stars. The racism and patriarchy Morrison searingly exposes in the slave trade of A Mercy or the normative white bodies of The Bluest Eye here become financially commodified flesh, blackness to be advertised and consumed, history erased not so much by violent repression as by the glittering surfaces of consumer capitalism.
But Bride’s past refuses to recede. In Beloved, Sethe’s traumatic memories manifest themselves in the ghostly, uncanny body of her quasi-daughter Beloved. Likewise, in God Help the Child Bride’s past insistently writes itself on her body. As she recovers from a severe beating, Bride magically turns into a child, losing her hips, chest, and ear piercings. This physical regression into her childhood self marks the haunting presence of her memories of maternal rejection and the sexual violence she witnessed on the surface of Bride’s skin. Her unsexed and unsexy body, stuck in the back woods, withdraws from the circuits of commodification and begins to remember and reabsorb its history. (Morrison, of course, is not the first writer to set off a superficial urban space, especially a clichéd southern California, against the transformation and recovery of an authentic self in nature. One imagines she won’t be the last to do so either.)
As we find out at the end of the excerpt from God Help the Child Morrison published in The New Yorker, Bride eventually becomes pregnant. Her own childishness as a regression into the past morphs into her expected child’s symbolic articulation of the future. Confronting her past, Bride also begins looking forward: “A child. New life. Immune to evil or illness, protected from kidnap, beatings, rape, racism, insult, hurt, self-loathing, abandonment. Error-free. All goodness. Minus wrath. So they believe.” The narrator undercuts Bride’s optimism with that final “so they believe,” evoking the relentless violence of growing up as a black woman in America that Morrison’s fifty-year career has so carefully documented. But Bride steels herself for future trauma too, prepared for her family to split apart once again — “The future? She would handle it.” Morrison’s Jazz and Home both end with trees split by lightning but still growing. Refiguring that other tree, the cross, these broken trees image a temporal, earthly, scarred resurrection, Walcott’s cracked “restoration.” Bride’s steely optimism for the future repeats that view.
Queen remains skeptical of the future too. As she considers Bride and Booker’s chances together, Queen muses that “each will cling to a sad little story of hurt and sorrow — some long ago trouble and pain life dumped on their pure and innocent selves. And each one will rewrite that story forever, knowing the plot, guessing the theme, inventing its meaning and dismissing its origin. What a waste.” Again, it’s tempting to read Queen here as a mouthpiece for Morrison, herself rewriting once again the story of racism and sexism in America. If each of her novels is a prism that scatters a family or an event into a kaleidoscopic pattern of perspectives, Morrison’s career is a prism too, multiplying the central traumas of rape and racism into myriad distinct, stunning, and harrowing texts. Queen’s exhaustion, then, her claim that it’s a “waste,” could be read as Morrison’s resignation that America still denies “its origin,” refusing to confront its ghosts or the scarred bodies and minds that it manufactures in the present.
Yet like so many novels that conclude with the expectation of new children, God Help the Child ultimately offers faith in the future, a small prayer for rebirth. It echoes the broken but healing trees in Jazz and Home, the divided but coordinated choir at the end of Beloved that exorcises the ghost, and the characters in Paradise and A Mercy who cobble together their own syncretic communities of believers from the fragments of other faiths. Our postmodern world, Morrison implies, requires that we constantly reassemble our relationships and ourselves in new forms. Throughout Morrison’s work, newborn children and syncretic faiths epitomize that reassembly.
Despite its name, though, God Help the Child envisions a strongly secular resurrection. Booker, a graduate student in history with heavily Marxist views, wants to write a book called “The Cross and the Vault” that will contrast “the beaten, penniless, half-naked King of the Jews screaming betrayal on a cross with the bejeweled, glamorously dressed pope whispering homilies above the Vatican’s vault.” Booker blames greedy religion for colonialism and depicts Christ as fully embodied, a class warrior who never achieves transcendent resurrection. Booker is a failed writer and jazz artist, so we shouldn’t map his materialism onto Morrison herself. But even with Bride’s magical transformation, God Help the Child’s characters experience a basically disenchanted reality inconsonant with the spirituality of Morrison’s other fictional worlds. Bride doesn’t so much transcend her corporate existence in a new, local community as she drops out of that consumer world altogether.
Perhaps then we should think of rebirth, secularism, and spirituality in Morrison’s fiction as acts of simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic reconstruction modeled by Morrison’s narrative form. Her narration enables both remembrance of the violent past and a gaze that looks toward the future. Bride refuses to communicate with her mother Sweetness beyond sending her checks and a few scribbled words, but Morrison’s writing picks up the broken pieces of their family, allowing Sweetness to speak to Bride by speaking to us. God Help the Child thus invokes a tentative faith in fiction itself as America continues ravaging so many of its children. What can a literary politics like this achieve in the face of money, patriarchy, racism? As Sweetness ends the section of the novel that Morrison published in The New Yorker, “Good luck and God help the child.”