About two-thirds of the way through Toni Morrison’s Beloved, we take a step away from the novel’s plot as a character whom we have just met gives the following inner monologue:
Even the educated colored: the long-school people, the doctors, the teachers, the paper-writers and businessmen had a hard row to hoe. In addition to having to use their heads to get ahead, they had the weight of the whole race sitting there. You needed two heads for that. Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way, he thought, they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.
Open to any page in Beloved, and it will swallow you right up. You don’t need any context for the paragraph above. It stands on its own, a living, breathing, thrashing truth that does not let you go in all of the novel’s 316 pages. It will take me while to get to the point where I feel like I can write about Toni Morrison properly and deeply enough, and more reading and thinking will be necessary. And yet. The thing about a novel like this one is that it actually asks too little of its readers. No prior knowledge is assumed except perhaps a passing familiarity with the history of American slavery, which so many of us learn is in the past, an embarrassing error on the part of generally well-meaning people, something we would do well to forget about. If that’s what you think you know when you sit down to read Beloved, it’s hard to imagine leaving the novel behind with the same impression. The story within its pages is about wounds that do not heal, but instead assume a human form and proceed to take everything within their reach.
I can’t write about Beloved in a lot of detail without revealing the major event at its epicenter, the scene from the novel’s past that will not leave the present alone. I don’t want to do that, yet, because I am still reflecting on the process of reading Beloved with no idea of what was coming, and I think the experience would have been a different one if I had read the introductory essay (which starts its analysis right at that crucial event) before beginning. On the same day I finished reading Beloved, I happened to also listen to a podcast on Deliverance, a film that could not seem more different in every way from Toni Morrison’s novel. The white male heroism and white male victimhood in that film have no place in Beloved, but both pieces contain at their respective cores the terror of people confronted with otherness and the ugly places that that innate fear can take us. Without insisting too much on thematic similarity, though, I think the relevant comparison is this:neither piece relies solely on plot for its gravitas – not even close – and the slowly-building dread of the first-time reader or viewer is, in both pieces, an indispensable component of the worlds that they each create.
I watched Deliverance for the first time having the very same lack of prior knowledge with which I picked up Beloved, and both pieces started to tell me in subtle ways that something was terribly wrong from the outset. The temporal weaving of Beloved allows it to tell its story slightly differently from the chronologically linear Deliverance. The scene that slowly draws itself with ever-sharper lines and contrast happened nearly two decades before the present-day plot of the novel, but different characters arrive in the present day with different levels of willingness to face the truth of what happened. It isn't until more than halfway through the novel that one character presents another with evidence, in the form of a photograph, that the horrible thing we think we might be piecing together actually did happen. And even once that photograph is there, once we can no longer deny that yes, it really is as awful as we thought, clarity does not come. Has anyone really moved on and managed to live with this thing in their past? Is that even possible, and would we want it if it were? Deliverance unfolds moment by moment in narrative order, so when the horrible thing happens at its midpoint, the protagonists are just as shocked as we are to find that their dread, which they were so eager to dismiss as nothing, came from a real threat that has been pursuing them since the beginning. The dueling banjos made famous by that film will never be heard by anyone who has seen it without evoking violence and trauma.
I cannot say that I am eager to see Deliverance ever again, but I know that I will reread Beloved. When I do, because I now know the arc of the story and the trauma at its center, I will begin to see the structure of the narrative taking shape in the early pages in ways that I could not as a first-time reader just struggling to follow and verify that I understood what was happening. Novels like this become my favorites to reread, the ones that I am always eager to revisit. I think, though, that I form this bond with them in part because I had the benefit of going in cold that very first time and of experiencing the entire piece totally on the author’s terms, letting her lead me rather than trying to get ahead of her text and ‘solve’ it. The prose is so sure of itself that even when the plot seems shrouded in fog, all of a sudden a new character appears and you are inside his head, seeing through his eyes how alive slavery is. Because that is the plot, too.