Since Love (2003), Morrison has been working in what one might call her late style. Rather than craft big novels like Tar Baby or Paradise, she’s distilled her fictions to their atomic elements. Morrison has chiseled and sculpted powerful narrative voices to drive these shorter, compressed works, each one paced for speed. In God Help the Child, that means the individual voices, like Brooklyn’s, Rain’s, and Sofia’s, don’t do the work of establishing character, whether theirs or others. Those voices are present to add dissonant timbre to Bride’s narration and Morrison’s themes. Like Bride, for instance, all three ancillary characters carry burdensome childhood baggage and have charged relationships with their mothers.
God Help the Child twins Bride’s devolution with Booker’s life-stunting rage. Booker’s narrative is the novel’s most accomplished section. Few writers, regardless of gender, can address the vagaries of black masculinity as sensitively, insightfully, and elegantly as Morrison.
Unbeknownst to Bride (she doesn’t ask, he doesn’t tell), Booker is a Walter Benjamin-loving graduate student and street musician. Angrily mourning his older brother’s murder, Booker fashions his childhood angst into an adult quest for truth through history and jazz. Taking up the trumpet as an eight-year-old, shortly after Adam’s funeral, Booker uses jazz to “oil and straighten his tangled feelings.” After learning that a child molester, “the nicest man in the world,” killed Adam and other local boys, Booker envisions that true justice calls for the man to “carry the rotting corpse around as a physical burden as well as a public shame and damnation.” But it’s Booker who ends up carrying Adam’s killing like a cumbersome load. Though meeting Bride seems to unshackle him from death, “the bliss of edible sex, free-style music, challenging books and the company of an easy undemanding Bride” isn’t enough to keep their “fairy-tale” relationship from crumbling when unspoken childhood traumas rise up between them. And then Booker runs away.
In the end, Bride tracks Booker down in a California logging village, after each has spent time alone confronting their individual failures. Morrison has always enjoyed pitting lovers against each other in her novels—think of Hagar trying to kill Milkman in Song of Solomon. Here, however, witnessing the lovers separate, fight, and reconnect lacks danger or dark humor; it seems too easy and unearned. This might explain some of problems coded into Morrison’s late style: With so many speedy narrative turns, the author risks missing some requisite details.
Morrison’s greatness—the beauty of her prose, her formal and imaginative risk-taking, her intellectual prowess—is founded on fiction about human devilishness and weakness, bodies crippled and in crisis, and the impact of our histories on our emotional faculties. If not at maximum strength, her powers are proudly on display in God Help the Child. At its best, this new novel demonstrates that the author is, as she suggested recently in a New York Times Magazine profile, fully capable of writing novels forever.
It’s worth keeping Jazz in mind while parsing this novel; it’s hard to read it without recalling the title of one of Billie Holiday’s signature songs, “God Bless the Child.” That's probably no accident: God Help the Child celebrates characters who achieve selfhood in spite of childhood suffering. But the novel also says, “You don’t know what love is/ Until you’ve learned the meaning of the blues.” And so, like Lady Day, Morrison makes art from the cadences of human heartbreak.