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.

4 comments:

  1. this is terrific writing... you mean, he gulped, i'm going to have to abandon my antediluvian attitude toward modern authorship? Heaven forfend, he said, but with a bitter smile conceded the possibility...

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    1. Not all contemporary prose is deliberately amateurish in order to seem "real" or "relatable" or whatever it's supposed to be! Jhumpa Lahiri is a very fine writer too, but her strength seems to be in short stories, not in novels. My friend Marly Youmans knows how to write, too.

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    2. Treasuring my Bailey compliments!

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