Toni Morrison, “Song of Solomon” (1977) – There’s a clade of writers whose work I respect but do not, generally, enjoy- Faulkner and Garcia Marquez are the top of that marquis. Then there’s writers I both enjoy and respect but don’t have a ton to say about, and Toni Morrison would probably be near the top there. “Song of Solomon” is in the running for the best fiction I’ve read this year, as “Beloved” was a few years ago when I read it, but I don’t have a whole big thing of commentary on it. The story of Macon “Milkman” Dead as he grows up in mid-twentieth century Michigan, “Song of Solomon” expands leisurely, but never slowly, on a world of black people extending outward from Milkman’s family tree. His family is something of a mess- an unwanted child saved by his mother and his aunt Pilate, born from a union made for dynastic convenience among petty black wealth in their small rustbelt city, two sisters too educated into precious black bourgeois conventions to do anything, family secrets extending back to rural Virginia from which they hailed.
Milkman is an everyman in the best sense, which is to say he’s relatable while being somewhat feckless, selfish, and altogether human (another Berard Complete protagonist in literary fiction to go with Naipaul’s Mr. Biswas- fully realized without being tedious in the usual manner of bourgeois fiction). He floats through life, largely on the both reproductive and emotional labor of women relatives (mother, sisters, aunt, cousin-lover), until his thirties when he tries to find both gold and home by retracing the steps his family took backwards from the Great Migration. At the edges, he encounters traces of the mythical/countercultural past that Ishmael Reed (Reed and Morrison knew and read each other) conjured in his work, underground or renegade existences of outsiders on the perimeter of American life, living more authentically than their neighbors or descendants, magically so even. Morrison keeps this elusive, allusive, on the edges of Milkman’s perception, in a way I found compelling.
What else to say? “Song of Solomon” is beautifully and dynamically written throughout. The existence of a vengeful black counter-terrorist secret society threatens to take it into realms of speculative fiction that might not work, but it does work, in the end. I wonder to what extent the book reflects its time, when the retreat from black power and the civil rights movement was in the air but hadn’t yet reached the counterrevolutionary depths it would with the Reagan years. There’s a melancholy to the work, a desire for escape and an inability to find it, this side of fantasy… I don’t know enough to say. It’s good! *****