- Love and Narrative Form in Toni Morrison's Later Novels by Jean Wyatt
Jean Wyatt's new book, Love and Narrative Form in Toni Morrison's Later Novels, is that rare combination of nuanced textual analysis and cutting-edge critical theory. In her meticulous readings of Morrison's novels from Beloved (1987) to God Help the Child (2015), Wyatt weaves multiple areas of theory—psychoanalysis, rhetoric, and call-and-response—to tease out [End Page 225] the differences as well as the progressions in Morrison's conceptions of love. Starting with the research question, "What is the effect on narrative structure if it is love, not desire, that moves narrative forward—or, perhaps, imposes stasis and brings narrative momentum to a halt? Or pushes the parameters of narrative convention to reflect heretofore unrepresented kinds of love?" Wyatt creates a fascinating study of narrative structure and preconceived notions of love (p. 1). Morrison's readers, she argues, respond to concepts of love through her varying narrative forms.
Reading Morrison's novels necessitates sometimes tentative, sometimes bold conclusions on the reader's part. According to Wyatt, Morrison's trademark technique of inviting the reader to participate in the creative act of story-telling coincides with her varying narrative strategies. Wyatt's study of a narrative's connection to a reader's notion of love explains how Morrison's texts force readers to call into question "customary values," "fixed beliefs about love," or preconceived ideas about "love, race, and gender" (p. 2). To illustrate how Morrison's structure mirrors content, Wyatt utilizes psychoanalytical concepts—including Freud's Nachträglichkeit (afterwardsness); Jacques Lacan's parable of the Fort! Da!; and Jean Laplanche's notion of the "enigmatic parental message"—to consider how narrative form works on readers (p. 3). She concludes that "delayed disclosures" in Morrison's texts cause the reader to go back and forth in time and in the text, "between the two scenes of her reading," and these delayed disclosures shift a reader's response to reassess motive and character (p. 3).
Thus, Wyatt merges psychoanalytic theory with rhetorical narrative theory to suggest that various narrative components—"author, implied author, narrator, implied reader, and flesh-and-blood reader"—connect with African American call-and-response "oral art forms" to reinforce the reader's participation in discerning Morrison's messages (p. 4). For example, Wyatt claims that the complicated use of narrators reflects the complexity of moral questions necessary for "critiquing systems of oppression" (p. 5). If Morrison's early style is "mimetic realist discourse," the later writings use "expressive language and experimental form" to examine the effects of history on the shape of character and narration (pp. 7, 9). Wyatt asks, if Morrison's "call" in the text is unclear, how can there be an appropriate reader response? By challenging belief systems, Morrison forces readers to examine "entrenched convictions about gender, race, and love," and her later novels question conventional thinking about a reader's engagement with love (p. 13).
Working through Morrison's novels in chronological order, Wyatt describes the different discussions of love and the effects of those renderings on the reader. She links Morrison's exploration of love to her inventions of "new narrative form[s] to express the new complexities of her subject" [End Page 226] (p. 18). In Beloved, Morrison examines maternal love in an uncanny way and, through the delayed telling of Sethe's killing, forces the reader to delay judgment. As a result, Morrison delivers the presence of the trauma of slavery. In Jazz (1992), Morrison begins with the "Western tradition of the love-death plot" only to end the novel with "freely chosen scenarios" of alternative versions of love that challenge the reader (pp. 16, 68). Looking at the problematic narrator of Jazz as the voice of the city, Wyatt illustrates how Morrison reveals collective African American trauma to be grounded in historical context.
Having focused on the call-and-response framework of Jazz, Wyatt shifts to the...