a craving for things humans had touched

Formally, the primary innovation Toni Morrison introduces in The Bluest Eye is the technique of introducing a new character for each section of the novel, presenting that character's backstory, and then circling around to place the new character into the primary action of the book. This is the basic structure of the novel, and it provides a larger social ambit for the story, widening the narrative out in big sweeping motions. For example, on page 164 (of a 201-page novel), a new section begins as follows:
Once there was an old man who loved things, for the slightest contact with people produced in him a faint but persistent nausea. He could not remember when this distaste began, nor could he remember ever being free of it. As a young boy he had been greatly disturbed by this revulsion which others did not seem to share, but having got a fine education, he learned, among other things, the word "misanthrope." Knowing his label provided him with both comfort and courage, he believed that to name an evil was to neutralize if not annihilate it. Then, too, he had read several books and made the acquaintance of several great misanthropes of the ages, whose spiritual company soothed him and provided him with yardsticks for measuring his whims, his yearnings, and his antipathies. Moreover, he found misanthropy an excellent means of developing character: when he subdued his revulsion and occasionally touched, helped, counseled, or befriended somebody, he was able to think of his behavior as generous and his intentions as noble. When he was enraged by some human effort or flaw, he was able to regard himself as discriminating, fastidious, and full of nice scruples.

As in the case of many misanthropes, his disdain for people led him into a profession designed to serve them. He was engaged in a line of work that was dependent solely on his ability to win the trust of others, and one in which the most intimate relationships were necessary. Having dallied with the priesthood in the Anglican Church, he abandoned it to become a caseworker. Time and misfortune, however, conspired against him, and he settled finally on a profession that brought him both freedom and satisfaction. He became a "Reader, Adviser, and Interpreter of Dreams." It was a profession that suited him well. His hours were his own, the competition was slight, the clientele was already persuaded and therefore manageable, and he had numerous opportunities to witness human stupidity without sharing it or being compromised by it, and to nurture his fastidiousness by viewing physical decay. Although his income was small, he had no taste for luxury — his experience in the monastery had solidified his natural asceticism while it developed his preference for solitude. Celibacy was a haven, silence a shield.

All his life he had a fondness for things — not the acquisition of wealth or beautiful objects, but a genuine love of worn objects: a coffee pot that had been his mother’s, a welcome mat from the door of a rooming house he once lived in, a quilt from a Salvation Army store counter. It was as though his disdain of human contact had converted itself into a craving for things humans had touched. The residue of the human spirit smeared on inanimate objects was all he could withstand of humanity. To contemplate, for example, evidence of human footsteps on the mat — absorb the smell of the quilt and wallow in the sweet certainty that many bodies had sweated, slept, dreamed, made love, been ill, and even died under it. Wherever he went, he took along his things, and was always searching for others. This thirst for worn things led to casual but habitual examinations of trash barrels in alleys and wastebaskets in public places...
Pages go by before this new character even gets a name. But is this a new technique? Didn't Tolstoy use it in War and Peace? I can't remember.

Jhumpa Lahiri, in her novel The Namesake, divides the narrative into four sections (as I remember, possibly incorrectly), and each section after the first begins with Gogol's falling in with a whole new social set, Lahiri giving us a lengthy introduction to those new characters. In that novel, these new groups of people act as settings for Gogol's identity crisis; who they are as people doesn't so much matter, what they do when they are on stage is generally of no importance. Morrison elegantly uses the formal device to much greater effect. Lahiri's supporting cast are mostly just chairs and tables that happen to speak.

sweet and plain as buttercake

They come from Mobile. Aiken. From Newport News. From Marietta. From Meridian. And the sounds of these places in their mouths make you think of love. When you ask them where they are from, they tilt their heads and say "Mobile" and you think you've been kissed. They say "Aiken" and you see a white butterfly glance off a fence with a torn wing. They say "Nagadoches" and you want to say "Yes, I will." You don't know what these towns are like, but you love what happens to the air when they open their lips and let the names ease out.

Meridian. The sound of it opens the windows of a room like the first four notes of a hymn. Few people can say the names of their home towns with such sly affection. Perhaps because they don't have home towns, just places where they were born. But these girls soak up the juice of their home towns, and it never leaves them. They are thin brown girls who have looked long at hollyhocks in the backyards of Meridian, Mobile, Aiken, and Baton Rouge. And like hollyhocks they are narrow, tall, and still. Their roots are deep, their stalks are firm, and only the top blossom nods in the wind. They have the eyes of people who can tell what time it is by the color of the sky. Such girls live in quiet black neighborhoods where everybody is gainfully employed. Where there are porch swings hanging from chains. Where the grass is cut with a scythe, where rooster combs and sunflowers grow in the yards, and pots of bleeding heart, ivy, and mother-in-law tongue line the steps and windowsills. Such girls have bought watermelon and snapbeans from the fruit man's wagon. They have put in the window the cardboard sign that has a pound measure printed on each of three edges--10 lbs., 25 lbs., 50 lbs.--and no ice on the fourth. These particular brown girls from Mobile and Aiken are not like some of their sisters. They are not fretful, nervous, or shrill; they do not have lovely black necks that stretch as though against an invisible collar; their eyes do not bite. These sugar-brown Mobile girls move through the streets without a stir. They are as sweet and plain as buttercake. Slim ankles; long, narrow feet. They wash themselves with orange-colored Lifebuoy soap, dust themselves with Cashmere Bouquet talc, clean their teeth with salt on a piece of rag, soften their skin with Jergens Lotion. They smell like wood, newspapers, and vanilla. They straighten their hair with Dixie Peach, and part it on the side. At night they curl it in paper from brown bags, tie a print scarf around their heads, and sleep with hands folded across their stomachs. They do not drink, smoke, or swear, and they still call sex "nookey." They sing second soprano in the choir, and although their voices are clear and steady, they are never picked to solo. They are in the second row, white blouses starched, blue skirts almost purple from ironing.

They go to land-grant colleges, normal schools, and learn how to do the white man's work with refinement: home economics to prepare his food; teacher education to instruct black children in obedience; music to soothe the weary master and entertain his blunted soul. Here they learn the rest of the lesson begun in those soft houses with porch swings and pots of bleeding heart: how to behave. The careful development of thrift, patience, high morals, and good manners. In short, how to get rid of the funkiness. The dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions.

Wherever it erupts, this Funk, they wipe it away; where it crusts, they dissolve it; wherever it drips, flowers, or clings, they find it and fight it until it dies. They fight this battle all the way to the grave. The laugh that is a little too loud; the enunciation a little too round; the gesture little too generous. They hold their behind in for fear of a sway too free; when they wear lipstick, they never cover the entire mouth for fear of lips too thick, and they worry, worry, worry about the edges of their hair.
This is all excellent stuff. The young black women who come to Lorain, Ohio from the South have taken up the ways of middle-class white women. They have learned to behave themselves, to cling to what looks like safety, but they live like sentries on an enemy frontier, tense and wary of the dangers all about them. They have learned to have possessions, and place, but they have forgotten life and living and genuine feeling. I love that remark about "the edges of their hair."

not to feel a shiver

Last night I started reading Toni Morrison's 1970 novel The Bluest Eye. It is pretty good. I can see how it's influenced a whole wave of writers, and also how it is a child of books from a previous generation. What interests me at this moment is that Morrison's novel was written in the same year, more or less, as the Wallace Stegner novel I just finished. The Bluest Eye and Angle of Repose are wildly different in terms of literary style. Stegner is very much of the Tolstoy school, or maybe more James Michener, alas. Morrison is a modernist, using stream of consciousness and shifting points of view, her metaphors cropping up aggressively from the text, pulling and twisting at the narrative, with a broken version of a "Dick and Jane" story as an epigraph to each chapter. Also, some sections have a ragged right hand margin. Some sections are all in italics. Mighty Reader would tell me that a designer would hate this book. It reads very well, though. I have no idea why I haven't read this already.

School has started, and Frieda and I get new brown stockings and cod-liver oil. Grown-ups talk in tired, edgy voices about Zick's Coal Company and take us along in the evening to the railroad tracks where we fill burlap sacks with the tiny pieces of coal lying about. Later we walk home, glancing back to see the great carloads of slag being dumped, red hot and smoking, into the ravine that skirts the steel mill. The dying fire lights the sky with a dull orange glow. Frieda and I lag behind, staring at the patch of color surrounded by black. It is impossible not to feel a shiver when our feet leave the gravel path and sink into the dead grass in the field.

Our house is old, cold, and green. At night a kerosene lamp lights one large room. The others are braced in darkness, peopled by roaches and mice. Adults do not talk to us -- they give us directions. They issue orders without providing information. When we trip and fall down they glance at us; if we cut or bruise ourselves, they ask us are we crazy. When we catch colds, they shake their heads in disgust at our lack of consideration. How, they ask us, do you expect anybody to get anything done if you all are sick? We cannot answer them. Our illness is treated with contempt, foul Black Draught, and castor oil that blunts our minds.

slipping on the loose earth

As I write this, I am about 460 pages into Wallace Stegner's 1971 novel Angle of Repose. I have maybe 90 pages to go. This book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and I can see why: it's a decidedly American novel, written about a period of transition, during a period of transition (though really, to misquote Frank Kermode, what modern period is not "transitional"?), and on the surface it's about historical transition. Absolutely "great American novel" stuff. It's a big novel, spanning a hundred years, most of the North American continent, and four generations of a family. Historical figures populate the background (Henry James is upstairs in one scene, though he pleads a headache and can't come join the conversation), and the sweep of history is matched by the sweep of the landscape, and Stegner's lovingly-detailed descriptions of mountain, prairie, and seaside. This book has so much going for it, and it's giving me some problems. I write about Stegner's novel now, before finishing the final 90 pages, because I'm sure that when I've reached the end of the book I will be well and truly done with Angle of Repose, and won't have the inclination to write about it.

There are a lot of good things to say about the novel, certainly. It's a well-formed story, it has a narrator who doesn't see that he and his wife are foil characters of his grandparents (whose biography the narrator is writing), it has mostly gorgeous prose, and it is chockablock full of period detail. It is, however, so very slow. The narrator, on page 450 or so, complains that he has only gotten his grandmother up to the age of 42, and he knows he will run out of time before he gets her to her 90s. The reader, I can assure you, feels a similar pressure of time. Why doesn't Stegner, I ask myself, get the hell on with it? The narrator is clearly moving toward a moment where he sees that in writing the biography of his grandparents, he is writing a sort of allegory for or fictionalized version of his own marriage, which has recently ended in divorce. Stegner navigates his way toward this moment at a snail's pace, dragging the novel down in a quite broad midsection that, like most American creatures, could stand to lose a good deal of weight. Yes, yes, I say, we get it. We understand the themes you're working, so can we have less repetition and more thematic development?

I'm not opposed to long novels. Last year I read War and Peace and a bunch of other long books. The year before last I finished In Search of Lost Time, which I'd begun the summer prior. Long books and I are on quite friendly terms. And yet. Stegner is spending most of his pages delaying the moment he's been setting up. I am not patient with that sort of thing. I should not read so structurally, so architecturally, so much like a fellow craftsman. But I do.

I'm being hard on Wallace Stegner, I know. There are some really great things about this book, not the least being the way that Stegner lovingly describes the wild western landscapes only to set the stage for pioneers who wish to cut and dig and break those landscapes, to make war upon nature with machines and animals, and to civilize it. Oliver Ward, the narrator's grandfather, spends a good deal of his time surveying immense territories, deciding which can be "made useful," and which cannot. It's easy to miss how these two elements of the book comment on each other. I also admit that I love the novel's title. Angle of repose refers to the steepest angle, or slope, at which loose material is stable, and will not slide. In the world of the novel, the narrator thinks of mining debris, of waste materials, when he thinks of the term. The novel moves, in its primary through-line, toward the narrator's grandparents finding their own angle of repose, that state in which they can stay put, and rest. By the time they reach that state, they are mostly debris, castoff, no longer of real value to the wider world. Their commercial riches have been milled out of them by life. A beautiful metaphor. Just very slow to reach, Mr Stegner.

in haste

"Afternoon, ordinary time"

Some days when heaven is
A cloudless azure slate
The waxing moon is
Chalked there boldly

A portrait of itself
Drawn in pure white
By the hand of
A celestial artist

I think of my bones
Which one day might
(glowing calcium carbonate)
Sleep in the sun