Sinking into Toni Morrison's fiction is like sinking into loamy earth. She writes novels that are ground heels-down into a planet of soil and water and stone. She writes novels of blood, bone, sunlight. Sula is in kind.
For a slim book -- Morrison's second, from 1973 -- the narrative reads as an epic. (Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping has the same sort of dissonance between length and scope.) Sula unfolds almost entirely in Ohio, in a tiny community called the Bottom that actually sits in the hills, above the valley-dwelling white people of the city of Medallion. We peek also into France, where Shadrack fights in World War I, loses much of his mind, and returns with the idea of bringing a National Suicide Day to the Bottom, so that people might find a bit certainty for death. There is also a long train ride to New Orleans, into a Creole-speaking home of a grandmother who dies just before arrival.
We barely see the title character until about halfway through the novel, and even then, the vantage of Sula Peace is so searingly archetypal, it must be divided with the vantage of Nel Wright, Sula's kind of friend. They grow up in very different homes in the Bottom, one of fire (such fires) and the other of watchfulness. Nel marries after high school, gives birth to children, and becomes a leader in the small community that she never leaves (excepting that single New Orleans trip, when she was a child). Sula disappears just after Nell's wedding, and doesn't return for ten years. It was a time she spent wandering, learning, confronting, explaining nothing, and establishing a strange relationship with remembrance. When Sula returns, this woman with the strange mark upon her eye, she is understood by those living in the Bottom as the incarnation of evil. She carries a bluntness about her -- not only a disregard for social conventions, but a willingness to invade them, even when they impact her old, and only, ally.
The epic reach of the novel is in part revealed in how the text moves well beyond Sula's death in 1940, after the Bottom's singular location for evil is eliminated, and therefore unleashed.
An epigraph from a Tennessee Williams play called The Rose Tattoo opens the novel: "Nobody knew my rose of the world but me. . . . I had too much glory. They don't want glory like that in nobody's heart." The line's subtle bleakness and sky-high outlook suits this novel. And I am intrigued by the gap between the epigraph's first-person and the novel's aggressive omniscience.
Sula was nominated for the National Book Award after it was published. It was also a latter-day Oprah's Book Club pick, by the author that is America's most recent Nobel laureate in literature. And, finally, the New York Times Book Review piece on Sula was written by Sara Blackburn in December, 1973, and included a few odd turns. The italics are mine:
Toni Morrison is someone who really knows how to clank a sentence, as the novelist Irving Rosenthal has put it, and her dialogue is so compressed and life-like that it sizzles. And Morrison's skill at characterization is such that, by the end, it's as if an enormous but too severely framed landscape has been unrolled and inhabited by people who seem almost mythologically strong and familiar; like the gorgeous characters of Garcia Marquez, they have a heroic quality, and it's hard to believe we haven't known them forever.
Yet the comparison can't be extended: Morrison hasn't endowed her people with life beyond their place and function in the novel, and we can't imagine their surviving outside the tiny community where they carry on their separate lives. It's this particular quality that makes "Sula" a novel whose long-range impact doesn't sustain the intensity of its first reading. Reading it, in spite of its richness and its thorough originality, one continually feels its narrowness, its refusal to brim over into the world outside its provincial setting.
As the author of frequent criticism and social commentary, Morrison has shown herself someone of considerable strength and skill in confronting current realities, and it's frustrating that the qualities which distinguish her novels are not combined with the stinging immediacy, the urgency, of her nonfiction. This last is a classically unfair carp on the part of a reviewer, but Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life. If she is to maintain the large and serious audience she deserves, she is going to have to address a riskier contemporary reality than this beautiful but nevertheless distanced novel. And if she does this, it seems to me that she might easily transcend the early and unintentionally limiting classification "black woman writer" and take her place among the most serious, important and talented American novelists now working.
UPDATE: So says Toni Morrison. Hat tip to the always-amazing Randa Jarrar for clueing me in to this video.