CBR12 BINGO: The Roaring 20’s
Have you ever gone to the movies, and as the credits roll, you can’t say that you loved the film or that you hated it, you just kind of think, “hmmm,” but for days after you find yourself pondering it, and visions of certain scenes and themes invade your thoughts, so eventually you come to realize that you’ve experienced something special? Jazz is like that.
During the first few chapters, I appreciated the beauty of the language but couldn’t help comparing Jazz to Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which was one of the most powerful books I read last year. As I came to the later chapters, though, the brilliance of the prose won me over, so that when I reached the last page, I wanted to start over and read the novel with an eye to the how the characters interconnect (and I would have, too, if I weren’t so obsessed with these BINGO squares; damn competitive streak!).
Jazz shifts through time and place, so the chronological order of events isn’t particularly relevant. At the beginning of the novel we learn that a man named Joe Trace, a 50-year-old makeup salesman, has murdered his 18-year-old mistress, Dorcas. To make matters even worse, Joe’s wife Violet interrupts the funeral and tries to stab Dorcas’s corpse in the face. Other characters in the novel include Dorcas’s aunt and guardian, Alice, as well as her friend Felice, both of whom develop curious relationships with Violet. As the story shifts into different eras, we also meet True Belle, Violet’s grandmother, and Golden Gray, a mixed-race man whose connection to the main characters is revealed over time. One of the most compelling characters in the story is the city of Harlem itself, one of the seats of jazz in the 1920s. Morrison describes Joe and Violet’s move to Harlem from the country and how the city affected its newcomers: “Like the others, they were country people, but how soon country people forget. When they fall in love with the city, it is for forever, and it is like forever. As though there never was a time when they didn’t love it. The minute they arrive at the train station or get off the ferry and glimpse the wide streets and the wasteful lamps lighting them, they know they are born for it. There, in a city, they are not so much new as themselves: their stronger, riskier selves.”
As in other novels by Morrison, race, identity, violence, and gender are major themes, but so are passion and music. The brilliance of Jazz is the way it shifts the narrative, moving from an unidentified first-person omniscient narrator to first-person narration from one or more of the characters, to third-person narration, and back again without warning. She makes music out of incongruity, much like the novel’s musical namesake. And this is where I feel my musical ignorance left me at a disadvantage, since while I’m familiar with jazz at a basic level, I’m no music expert, and I wish I could greater appreciate the way Morrison handles language in this novel: riffing off the musical genre in both themes and construction.
Perhaps I need to learn a bit more about jazz before I read Jazz again. While I can enjoy the genre on a superficial level, I suspect it can mean so much more the deeper you dig. Sorta like Jazz.