Reading the Alphabet: J is for Jazz

Every time I read a new work by Toni Morrison (or reread an old favorite), my suspicion that she is the greatest of contemporary writers increases. Really, is there anyone else with her mastery of language and narrative – her deep understanding of humanity in all its glory and wretchedness? There have certainly been many talented writers in recent years – and more still emerging – but if there is another voice like hers, I’m still looking for it. Jazz is yet another revelation of her skill and creativity.

Set in the 1920s New York, Jazz opens with a local scandal: a middle-aged man shot his teenage lover, and his wife tried to slash her face at the funeral. From there, we learn the stories of this couple and the people around them – how they got to this breaking point and how they pick up the pieces in the aftermath. Through deft shifting of first-person perspective among the couple and their neighbors, Morrison composes a soulful portrait of love and longing.

Morrison has experimented with utilizing musical structures in her fiction before – as in her 1983 short story, “Recitatif,” which models itself after an operatic device. Here, her narrative echoes a jazz arrangement: the straight melody is the early relation of the strict facts, and the ensuing “solos” of the characters build upon and subvert the theme, playing over the chords. As the characters take turns telling their stories, nuance is added to the original melody, and the sordid affair and murder take on notes of melancholy and pain, of treasured dreams and dreaded reality, of renewal and rediscovery. And as the final strains fade away, we are left with a fuller understanding of these people, with all their strengths and weaknesses, and we realize that perhaps the final judgment is not ours to make.

Jazz is ultimately book about relationships: between lovers, family, friends, and even enemies. My favorite dynamic was between Violet, the wronged wife, and Alice, the dead girl’s aunt. Theirs is a… friendship? uneasy truce?… that grows from an innate understanding, even amidst pain and resentment. Here are two women who should be enemies by rights, but, as with all relationships in the book, nothing is as simple as it looks on paper. The straight melody is the simplistic fact. The soulful improvisations are the true human experience.

Less than 300 pages, Jazz is a quick read, filled with memorable scenes and, of course, Morrison’s evocative language. Her prose is fittingly lyrical and precise, cutting like a knife at times and embracing like an old friend at others. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Morrison herself with a slow easiness that emphasizes the lilting rhythm of her writing. Whether you typically enjoy audiobooks or not, this recording is a standout, and I highly recommend it – but I’d recommend the book in any form, really.

–b

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