After 20 years of marriage, Joe Trace decides to cheat on his wife, Violet, with a teenage girl by the name of Dorcas. Renamed “Violent,” the betrayed woman takes a knife to Dorcas’s face… the only real problem is the Dorcas is already lying lifeless in her coffin, and it was Joe who killed her.
In her 6th novel, Toni Morrison describes a journey to and through love — questioning devotion and betrayal, and the betrayal in devotion. The fictional tale of 1925 and 1926 in Harlem is one that is beautifully written but the meaning behind it (and what it might say of me) was what kept me glued to the page. A new New Yorker myself, Morrison describes “The City” (always in caps) exactly the way it is: a grungy rendition of glamorous.
I’m crazy about this City. Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see looking faces and it’s not easy to tell which are people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is shadow were any blasé thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep. It’s the bright steel rocking above the shade below that does it.
The tale of Joe stepping out on Violet takes place during a time when America was redefining itself. Before arriving in Harlem, Joe and Violet had long histories since they both came from slave families who had been freed. At the end of the book (sorry to fast forward) we learn that Violet’s grandmother was once the servant to the man who took care of Joe’s mother, “Wild”. The connections in the story are skillfully intertwined –just like the music the book is named after: Jazz, which emerged in the 1920s bringing sexual rhythms and dancing with it.
Songs that used to start in the head and fill the heart had dropped on down, down to places below the sash and the buckled belts. Lower and lower, until the music was so lowdown you had to shut your windows and just suffer the summer sweat when the men in shirtsleeves propped themselves on window frames, or clustered on rooftops, in alleyways, on stoops and in the apartments of relatives playing the lowdown stuff that signaled Imminent Demise.
As with “tradition” of any kind, the older folks weren’t fond of Jazz music, but as the sounds vibrated in every nightclub, it raised the youth then like Hip Hop raises some youth today. Young people, like Dorcas found themselves yearning to grow and be allowed to experience the world, and, like any young spirit, she was attracted to the danger of their relationship. It was this youthful fire or romance that attracted Joe to Dorcas. What he didn’t know was how hot Dorcas’s flame would actually be. Both of her parents had died in a fire, and she moved to New York to stay with her aunt, Alice Manfred, who monitored her every move. In an age where sheer stockings were considered scandalous, she yearned to break free. Joe helped her escape, and then she ran away from him, too.
Meanwhile, we wonder how 56-year-old woman lost her senses enough to walk into a funeral and cut up a dead girl’s face, feeling absolutely no remorse for it. Then, she shows up to the aunt’s house and asks to have a picture of her. We wonder why Joe stepped out in the first place. While we want to blame his manhood and assume he was thinking with the wrong organ, Morrison lets Joe tell his own story: He was missing affection. You see, Violet has this parrot who says “I love you,” and that’s the only time the two of them hear the word. Layered in a “dark vs light skin” realm we learn that Dorcas (lighter skinned) wasn’t as pretty as Violet in any way, but she actually spoke to Joe.
It’s amazing how different stories are when you hear it from the person, first-hand. Perhaps that’s why Joe and Violet kept a photo of the dead girl on their mantle for so long: they wished they could hear her story. The most difficult part of this book was trying to figure out who I sided with and why. I’m still lost, but this is why I love Toni Morrison – she requires the reader to do some thinking on their own. While Violet sits in Alice Manfred’s apartment, we join in on the conversation, wondering the same questions, “What next?” Little do we know, the answers are always in our heads…
Ms. Morrison is my favorite author of all time, so I don’t really have to say I loved this book, I own two copies 😉
Read you books, keep your spirits fly. Buy Jazz by Toni Morrison on Amazon, or visit your local library 🙂