Milkman Dead was born shortly after a neighborhood eccentric hurled himself off a rooftop in a vain attempt at flight. For the rest of his life he, too, will be trying to fly. With this brilliantly imagined novel, Toni Morrison transfigures the coming-of-age story as audaciously as Saul Bellow or Gabriel García Márquez. As she follows Milkman from his rustbelt city to the place of his family's origins, Morrison introduces an entire cast of strivers and seeresses, liars and assassins, the inhabitants of a fully realized black world.
There is something fun in the curious way Morrison presents this. Things happen that make us wonder. Every character seems to have a name that is clearly meaningful, and yet it’s never clear what they mean. And, actually, we never seem to be fully in reality. Even the location, somewhere near a not-inspiring Flint, MI and yet where one can look over Lake Superior, is impossible. But why?
Names do come about in a wonderful variety of forms, including three Macom Deads, the second naming his daughters Magdalena and First Corinthians, and a having an estranged sister named Pilate. Pilate, a somewhat goddess like character without a navel, is unmarried with an unmarried daughter and granddaughter, that later one named Hagar. The third Macom Dead, the book’s main character, acquires the name Milkman initially because his mother nursed him too long (till he was about 8?), but Milkman grows up unaware of the origin of his name. His best friend is Guitar. And so on.
The story is a coming of age of sorts, even if Milkman’s coming of age takes place in his thirties. He must somehow be driven to leave his comfortable and stifled middle class life (funded by his father’s success as a slumlord), and travel through his family's past, ending up in a dirt-poor black community somewhere in Virginia. He finds mythical and real roots, perspective, and a very different view of life. But he leaves a kind of wreckage behind along the way. And the ending is a most precarious one.
There are many things going on through out this novel. Some seem to be clear, such as the racially conscious tone and the criticism of middle-class blacks as rootless, soulless imitations of white people. The mythological links to the Odyssey in Milkman’s travels. And again in the opening Icarus-like scene where salesman Robert Smith dives off a tall building intending to fly, leaving behind a note that says something simply like, “I love you all,” and very powerfully illustrating the black glass ceiling, where black professional prospects cannot exceed.
But this only touches the surface. The reader is left to ponder, and ponder widely as there is simply no easy take. This books goes many places, and the tracks are obscured. When I put it down, I simply had no response. A good book, but how good? And what was the point? After much thinking and reading a Bloom’s collection of essays on it, I still can’t clearly answer that second question, although I can say this is a pretty good book. Enjoyed it.
“Song of Solomon” tells the story of Macon (“Milkman”) Dead (far from the only peculiar name you’ll see encounter in this book), the son of a loveless marriage and an overbearing, despotic father, also named Macon. Morrison presents the reader with a wide cast of characters early in the novel, all fully drawn out, but refuses to hint at which ones you should be following most closely. There’s Macon Sr.’s sister, Pilate; her daughter, Rebecca; and Rebecca’s daughter, Hagar, all of whose names point directly to the kind of mythical, grand storytelling that Morrison is so invested in. Not even the Nobel Committee could escape the language of myth when mentioning her in their citation: “The Solomon of the title, the southern ancestor, was to be found in the songs of childhood games. His inner intensity had borne him back, like Icarus, through the air to the Africa of his roots. This insight finally becomes Milkman’s too.”
The action is centered around Milkman’s coming of age, and slightly resembles a Bildungsroman, though it’s so much richer and fuller than anything that word could connote. The novel is full of disintegrating, rotting relationships – between Ruth and Macon Sr., Pilate and Macon Sr., Milkman and his erstwhile best friend Guitar, and Milkman and his girlfriend Hagar. Without giving away too much, Milkman’s journey sets him on a path where he ends up learning about the circumstances of his own birth and his ancestors.
This was a spectacular novel, convincing me still again that Toni Morrison is a kind of American Homer, full of allegory and origins, an undiluted rhapsode always pushing for a deeper and more expansive and prophetic evaluation of our roots, our identities, and our borders. As often as she’s called a black writer, an African-American writer, a woman writer (that especially grating nineteenth-century appellation that rings of male condescension), she seems like none of these to me. She is American – as widely and deeply American as any of the other novelists who come before her.
This is a truly impressive piece of work, and a wonderful place to start if you’re unfamiliar with Morrison’s oeuvre.
Morrison’s style is unique, as she writes at times with magical realism and poetically weaves her way through the story, and at others with dialogue and events that are so direct and real that they sear on the page. You may shudder at the ‘Seven Days’ club’s desire for vengeance, but Morrison does not flinch in describing this. Her writing seems very honest in so many ways: in the banter in her characters’ dialogue, the relationships between men and woman particularly when there is sexual obsession, and in the observations she makes, such as at one point expressing the criticism that there is sometimes a tendency for blacks to excuse themselves from doing better because everything is “The Man’s fault”.
One of the central themes of the book is the hope of transcending difficult conditions, and also to know one’s past, one’s people. Most have lost their real names and sometimes get the ridiculous names out of white hubris, or because “White people name Negroes like race horses”, and indeed, the dedication to the book reads “The fathers may soar, and the children may know their names”. The book is ambitious in its scope and in how the story was told. Maybe too ambitious for an even higher rating from me. Parts of the plot don’t seem plausible, such as Guitar’s actions towards Milkman towards the end, though perhaps they are also symbolic. Regardless, all in all, a good read.
"As the stars made themselves visible, Milkman tried to figure what was true and what part of what was true had anything to do with him." (p 75)
Through the enlightenment of this one man, his quest for identity, the novel recapitulates the history of slavery and liberation. The novel's epigraph reads, "The fathers may soar/ And the children may know their names." The importance of names and naming for Morrison's cast of characters, primarily Milkman's family, seems to exist in a name's ability to intimate or uncover hidden truths about personal identity. Morrison's use of the flight metaphor to bookend the story is brilliant as well. I found the story both entertaining and educational in the sense that I learned about a culture that was very different than my own. The differences were submerged beneath the similarities in relationships of family and friends that were like those of everyone everywhere.
Morrison's story centers around the Dead family composed of Macon (the abusive, yet savvy father), Ruth (the mother - a sad woman whose grief for her dead father defines her life), First Corinthians (a daughter both beautiful and educated who stumbles in her search for a lover), Magdalene called Lena (the second daughter), and finally Milkman (Macon's son). There are other important characters as part of the extended family - namely Pilate, Macon's free spirited sister who lives with her daughter Reba and Reba' daughter Hager.
There are many themes and much symbolism throughout the book, and I found myself marking passages and re-reading paragraphs to make sense of them. First and foremost, the novel is about discovery of one's roots, and the painful search for love. Milkman starts his life fighting to avoid murder at the hands of his father, and this theme continues through the book ending with Milkman's protracted journey from his home in Michigan to his grandparent's home in Virginia. Along the way, Milkman's views of life are challenged and his connection to his roots are strengthened. Another strong theme in the novel is that of racism and the struggle of blacks in American to overcome the history of slavery. Finally, the idea of taking flight and finding oneself is replayed over and over in the book. In one memorable scene, Milkman and his friend Guitar observe a white peacock. Milkman asks why the peacock struggles to fly and Guitar says:
"Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can't nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down." -From Song of Solomon, page 179-
I avoided reading a Morrison novel for a long time because I had heard that Morrison's books were often difficult reads with weighty themes. And this is certainly true. But despite this, I found myself looking forward to picking up the book. Morrison writes beautifully and is a superb storyteller. Although she is sometimes heavy handed with the symbolism, I didn't find it distracting from the story. I found myself caring deeply about the characters in Song of Solomon, even those who were not terribly likable.
Song of Solomon has been banned in the United States for "language degrading to blacks," violent imagery, sexually explicit and profane language and depictions of sexuality. It has been accused of promoting a "homosexual agenda." There is profanity, violence and sex in the novel, but it is not gratuitous.
Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 for her body of work, and I can certainly see why based on this book alone. I will be reading more of Toni Morrison in the future.
Song of Solomon is highly recommended; rated 4.5/5.
It confused me initially, and that why I resisted it. But once I got over that, I really enjoyed it.
The only negative that I can come up with is that there is a bit too much plot. I feel like Morrison's writing is at a high enough level that she can forgo some of the plot and just write. She gives the reader a feeling of deep, deep roots and a beautiful melancholy that is enough without the overwrought plot. Her writing is reminiscent of Faulkner, which is for me, a very high compliment.
My favorite character is Pilate, sister to the second Macon Dead. She is intense, somewhat magical, and driven. She wears her name in her earring and eschews worldly trappings, living in the way she feels she should, rather than the way the world expects her to, and she apologies to no one.
This is not a simple story. The characters are deep, their motives deeper, their stories are both uplifting and tragic. It deserves a re-read in a couple of years' time, as I'm sure there's much that I missed the first time in.
I love the beauty of Toni Morrison's words and the terribly complicated but simply human characters of this novel. The plot takes me to places and worlds I would never know without this book. I want to know Pilate and Circe as strongly as my own grandmothers.
It's worth reading the book just for the names, which provide the kind of humor that one character describes as being vital to living life as a black woman. An ancestor of the main character, being illiterate, unintentionally accepts a post-slavery surname of "Dead" and names his children by pointing at the Bible, resulting in some of the best names in English-language literature.
The Days was the most interesting part. Unlike Beloved, the politics felt a lot less pastede on yey. Political diatribes felt appropriate in Song of Solomon. The idea that they would rape and murder innocent white women made me ill, but Guitar had a compelling explanation—that any white person is a potential lyncher. Wrong, of course, but I can see how he would be so filled with fear and rage that he’d start thinking that way.
It felt a little misogynistic, something I realize more comparing it with Beloved. Beloved was a story about a woman and her two female daughters, and yet there was a long subplot about her lover shoehorned in with a lot about how awful it was to be a black man that eclipsed her story. The rape of black women wasn’t so bad—but the effect it had on black men was just horrible! Sigh. Ditto here, although in this story it’s more appropriate, since the main focus is on Milkman, his father Macon Dead (and his father Macon Dead), and Guitar. The young women are blamed for how they were raised, and mostly exist in relation to men (as mothers, as lovers, as sisters). Milkman’s sister points out his misogyny and how he has been using women, but that was pretty quickly dropped. There’s no real analysis of the sociopolitical forces that lead to it, like there is for the stuff involving men.
Some of the prose was just absolutely beautiful. The book was a serious slog, it was so thick and dense. It took me a while to start really caring about the characters, and I have to admit I never really came to care about Milkman.