Why, oh why, did no one force this book upon me before now? The characters are so vivid, the writing so lush and smart, the relationships so deep and complex and unsettling. In the introduction, Morrison writes that she approached this novel very differently from her previous books. Firstly, it was delivered to her, muse-like, by her recently-deceased father in answer to the question, “What are the men you have known really like?” And secondly, because she was writing primarily about men rather than women, she chose a more linear, “old-school heroic” narrative structure: “A journey, then, with the accomplishment of flight, the triumphant end of a trip through earth, to its surface, on into water, and finally into air.”
This sense of epic journey, of a classic bildungsroman in which Milkman, Morrison’s protagonist, attempts to make his way in a world that had already decided who he was before he was even born, is wonderfully juxtaposed with Morrison’s insistence, common to all of her work, on decentering the white gaze. I love how Morrison’s books speak to me (a white reader) without speaking to me, and thus allow me to learn my way into other histories, other homes, other worlds.
I’ll also posit that Pilate, Milkman’s aunt, is one of the great characters in all of literature. Here’s how we first see her, through young Milkman’s eyes:
They found her on the front steps sitting wide-legged in a long-sleeved, long-skirted black dress. Her hair was wrapped in black too, and from a distance, all they could really see beneath her face was the bright orange she was peeling. She was all angles, he remembered later, knees mostly, and elbows. One foot pointed east, and one pointed west.
For me, Pilate alone was worth the price of admission.