'Jazz' by Toni Morrison (1992)
In jazz-age Harlem, in the winter of 1925-26, a married, middle-aged man named Joe Trace has a fling with eighteen-year-old Dorcas. Inevitably, she leaves him for a more exciting man her own age; Joe tracks down Dorcas in a speakeasy and kills her - and then Joe's wife Violet attacks Dorcas's body at the funeral. And that's where the story starts.
'Jazz' is Toni Morrison's sixth novel, first published in 1992 and following the critical and popular success of 'Beloved'. Like 'Beloved', the story is haunted by a ghost - not the literal ghost of a baby, but the memory of an eighteen-year-old girl. In the 2004 foreword, TM writes that the inspiration for the story came from a James Van Der Zee photograph of a pretty girl in a coffin, and from the discovery of a trunk filled with her mother's memorabilia from her own youth.
Even more than most Toni Morrison novels, 'Jazz' is narrated in the author's flashback style. The real story of the novel - until the very last section - is the story of the events that led up to the bizarre love triangle of Joe-Violet-Dorcas: the lives of the characters, their experiences, their losses and their longings.
Joe Trace, born in Virginia in 1873, never knows his father and is separated from his mother at an early age. (As with most Toni Morrison characters, there's a story behind his name: "I'm Trace, what they went off without.") He forms close bonds with his stepbrother Victory and father figure Frank "Hunter" Lestory, but is obsessed with finding his mother. Growing up, he hears tales of a madwoman living in the wilderness, known simply as Wild, and Hunter intimates to the thirteen-year-old Joe that there is a familial connection between them.
Violet is born the third of five children to her mother Rose Dear and a mostly absent father. Following Rose's suicide, she is raised by her grandmother True Belle, who tells stories of the blond-haired boy she raised with her white former mistress. Violet develops a fascination for this boy - Golden Gray - whom she has never met. (It is hinted that Golden may also have some relationship with Joe, through Wild.)
They meet under a walnut tree in Virginia, working after a surprise cotton harvest, and travel north by train to New York in 1906 in the later years of the Great Migration. ("The wave of black people running from want and violence crested in the 1870s; the '80s; the '90s but was a steady stream in 1906 when Joe and Violet joined it.")
Both Joe and Violet decided early on never to have children, and in the end this decision haunts them. Onto the scene comes Dorcas - herself orphaned by racist violence in the 1917 East St. Louis riots, now living with her overprotective aunt Alice. Alice, determined not to let herself or her niece become a victim like so many black women and men of the time, muses on various forms of physical and spiritual defense. "All over the country, black women were armed" - and the ones who were not, sought strength in faith or in community (pp. 77-78). Alice sees the popular music of the book's title as a vehicle for the many spiritual threats to black youth. She takes Dorcas to a parade of black veterans, with a military drumbeat solemnly calling out protest against discrimination, hoping the sight will inspire the girl. It does - but not in the way Alice intended.
Dorcas ultimately finds the relationship with Joe unsatisfying precisely because he has no expectations of her. Even Acton's narcissistic demands are better than none at all: "He [Joe] didn't even care what I looked like. I could be anything, do anything - and it pleased him. ... Acton, now, he tells me when he doesn't like the way I fix my hair." (p. 190.) Joe, for his part, is enamored of Dorcas's skin blemishes - which, as a cosmetics salesman, Joe knows could be easily remedied. But he's insecure and he's afraid of letting Dorcas become too attractive.
Joe, Violet, Dorcas - all in search of something they've lost. "[F]rom the very beginning I was a substitute and so was he." This is Violet's devastating realization after contemplating her own, and Joe's, private obsessions in the wake of the tragedy with Dorcas.
And yet the book ends on a note of triumph and redemption. Dorcas' friend Felice, who appears early in the book as a side character, now moves to center stage. Felice is not only a foil to Dorcas, but also a healing force for Joe and Violet. In a narrative "mistake", the second shooting hinted at on p. 6 never happens; instead, the mysterious voice of the never-identified narrator seems to step back in amazement as Joe, Violet, and Felice take over the story.
The narrative voice of 'Jazz' is unique and enigmatic: an omniscient first-person narrator who frequently addresses the reader directly. In the foreword, TM writes that the book's style was born of frustration - and of a moment of epiphany and liberation.
The story of Joe, Violet, and Dorcas unfolds at a deliberate pace. All the forces of family love, loss, violence, prejudice, passion, and forgiveness that shape the characters and their relationships are told, bit by bit, in Morrison's spellbinding prose.
In its final pages, the writing is perhaps some of Morrison's most explicitly spiritual. Dorcas' last words remained with me long after I put the book down, as did the closing words of the lonely and disembodied narrator. I got the feeling that the voice of the narrator echoes not only the writer contemplating her characters, but also our own Author contemplating us all.