Some people complain that 19th-century fiction takes too long to get going. But does it really? Once the hero’s pedigree is out of the way, the Victorian novel moves resolutely forward. The contemporary narrative, on the other hand, offers a quick thrill up front that readers must pay off, in a kind of installment plan, by enduring one flashback after another.
Take Toni Morrison’s new novel, A Mercy. Set in the American colonies in the 1680s, it tells of an Anglo-Dutch trader who gathers around him no fewer than four traumatized girls. First he buys Lina, a Native American survivor of a smallpox epidemic, to help manage his household. Then, after negotiating another “sale,” he marries a 16-year-old English girl whose parents always treated her with “glazed indifference.” Then he takes in a young orphan called Sorrow. Finally he accepts, as payment for a debt, a slave girl called Florens. There is too much common ground among these characters for the reader to have an easy time keeping them apart. A little conflict might have helped, but Morrison will not even let them compete for a visiting blacksmith—a free black man and, it would seem, the only attractive male in the New World. Perhaps this tendency to idealize the exploited is part of our literary tradition as a whole. Where the European writer condemns poverty for bringing out the worst in people, the American condemns it for oppressing such fine and decent folk; compare Germinal, say, with The Grapes of Wrath. Morrison, too, is so busy showcasing her characters’ nobility that we get little sense of what hardship can really do to the human spirit. One of the girls “wears bright blue beads and dances in secret at first light when the moon is small”: there’s too much of that sort of thing.
A short novel at only 167 pages (the title is apt), A Mercy might still have held the reader’s attention had it ignored the contemporary taboo against straightforward, sequential storytelling. But this is in effect a series of backstories, some told in the narrator’s affected voice, some in the characters’ scatty idiom, but all moving at the same uninvolving expository trot. Back and forth the book goes over the same period, summing up this life, then that, with more crude sarcasm brought to bear on colonial society—“Lina ... let herself be purified by these worthies,” etc.—than sincere effort to understand it. Months, years, and entire character transformations are dispatched in a few enumerative sentences.
Relying on memory and her own resources, she cobbled together neglected rites, merged Europe [sic] medicine with native, scripture with lore, and recalled or invented the hidden meaning of things. Found, in other words, a way to be in the world.
How shallow and vague that is; how glibly it breezes through the life of the mind. A Mercy is eked out with a few set pieces, but even they rush us through; the book never seems to settle into narrative “real time.”
For all its cheerlessness, the novel is anything but grittily realistic. Some scenes, such as one in which a character gets out of her bath “aslide with wintergreen,” evince an effort to make even these miserable lives picturesque. But Morrison’s failure to evoke the period is more the fault of her all-too-contemporary prose style: “1682 and Virginia was still a mess.” No one likes an archaizer, apart from a million Cormac McCarthy fans, but a novelist writing of the 17th century should at least avoid language that is jarringly inconsistent or out of place. Reminiscing, the slaves vacillate between would-be-poetic English and an equally improbable sort of Hollywood Injun: “Shadows of men sat on barrels, then stood. They said they were told to break we in.” Anachronisms abound, from New Age lingo like “She gives off a bad feeling” to the dialect of the postbellum South: “her borning young.” We are even told that our Anglo-Dutch trader had “gone head to head with rich gentry.” What, and not drunk their milk shake?