‘Second-Hand’ is a series of alternative book reviews. Traditional reviews, with their emphasis on the latest and greatest novels, risk leaving the reader behind. This column offers a breathing space, by focusing each time on a single second-hand book.
The focus of this column is on chance encounters, revisionary readings of classic novels, and on the margins of the literary canon. It is a celebration of the book as physical object, in an age that prioritises digital publication.
There has been much discussion of late over the Nobel Prize in Literature, thanks to a surprising win by Robert Zimmerman, a.k.a Bob Dylan. There was general consternation over the fact of a singer winning the prize, though it was rarely mentioned that the category of literature has been interpreted broadly by the Nobel panel in the past (Bertrand Russell won it for his books of popular philosophy; Winston Churchill for his historical writings and speeches). But as a consequence of the media noise around Dylan, it has occurred to me that the USA has done extraordinarily well at winning the thing, with 11 laureates since 1930. It was largely because I had been thinking these thoughts the same morning that I spontaneously nipped in to a local Books for Amnesty that I was drawn to a line on the cover of Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison: “WINNER OF THE NOBEL PRIZE IN LITERATURE”.
The win, in 1993, came around halfway through Morrison’s career, six years after the celebrated Beloved (1987), and sixteen years after Song of Solomon (1977). Morrison, the Nobel committee decided, “gives life to an essential aspect of American reality” in her novels. Song of Solomon is one such novel, giving life to the struggle of African Americans to come to terms with their identities precisely as American citizens. It is the story of the improbably named Macon ‘Milkman’ Dead, who leaves his Michigan home to search, in vain, for lost gold, but gains instead an understanding of his family history and of black history in America. It is a novel about existing in a country that is claiming to move away from slavery, but that will just barely recognise the humanity and rights of those it once enslaved; a country that wants to move as quickly as possible away from its own past, but in doing so seems to be leaving behind a large proportion of its own citizens.
These themes are largely realised through a fixation on language, and especially on naming. The family name ‘Dead’ emerges through a form fudged by a drunk (white) administrator, who confuses the status of a deceased grandfather with a surname; much of the narrative centres around Not Doctor Street, so-called because white officials refuse to accept the informal nickname of ‘Dr. Street’, named by black residents for the first black doctor in Macon’s town; Macon’s aunt wears a box-shaped earring, in which she keeps a piece of paper with her name written on it — the only word her own father ever wrote; and generations of children in the Dead family receive Christian names chosen at random from the Bible, including First Corinthians and Pilate (the name of the aforementioned aunt with the earring). Macon himself is called Milkman by almost every character save for his parents, a nickname that has clung to him doggedly ever since, when young, he was discovered feeding at his mother’s breast at an inappropriately advanced age.
Above all others, the name ‘Solomon’ takes on a life of its own. ‘Mr. Solomon’ is the name of a pile of bones found in a bag about midway through the novel, but only towards the end does its significance as a name become clearer. In the town of Shalimar, pronounced by locals as ‘Shalimon’, Macon discovers, in part by overhearing a playground song sung by children, that his great-grandfather was a man named Solomon who fathered twenty-one children before escaping slavery by, as the story has it, flying of his own volition back to Africa. Having found no gold, Macon is instead overjoyed to find himself connected to the name Solomon, a figure of local legend and the stuff of folk tales: the man who flew away, above and beyond, his oppressors.
‘Song of Solomon’ is also another name for the Biblical Song of Songs, one of the Books of Wisdom of the Old Testament. In Hebrew culture, it is read during the Passover to commemorate the exodus of slaves from Egypt, a theme not absent from the novel. But the Biblical song itself centres around the sexual desire of two lovers, who praise God via their praise for one another. Morrison’s Song of Solomon is also about the ties that bind, the links between family members, relatives, friends, lovers, and even strangers. These relationships are never straightforward — by the end of the novel, Macon’s lover, who is also his first cousin, dies — implicitly killing herself because he has rejected her — and Macon in turn is subject to repeated assassination attempts by his best friend, and by the same cousin (before her death). In fact, I repeatedly had in mind Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as I read this book. They are Two very different works, indeed, but they both tie knots in their own narratives, fold backwards through time freely, proceed along non-linear paths. They are both cut through by absurdist streaks (including the figures of Milo Minderbinder in Catch-22 and Macon’s father in Song of Solomon — both merciless players of the capitalist game). Both books also feature protagonists who are subject to repeated assassination attempts, leaving them with the fatalist’s sense that the universe itself wants them dead.
All of the paradoxical links between the novel’s inhabitants, as well as the tightly-woven bundle of narratives that form the novel, are grounded in the links between people and places, and this is once again managed in terms of names and naming. Towards the end of the novel, with the knowledge of his grandfather in mind, Macon reflects on names. It is a passage that deserves being quoted in full:
“He closed his eyes and thought of the black men in Shalimar, Roanoke, Petersburg, Newport News, Danville, in the Blood Bank, on Darling Street, in the pool halls, the barbershops. Their names. Names they got from yearnings, gestures, flaws, events, mistakes, weaknesses. Names that bore witness. Macon Dead, Sing Byrd, Crowell Byrd, Pilate, Reba, Hagar, Magdalene, First Corinthians, Milkman, Guitar, Railroad Tommy, Hospital Tommy, Empire State, Small Boy, Sweet, Circe, Moon, Nero, Humpty-Dumpty, Blue Boy, Scandinavia, Quack-Quack, Jericho, Spoonbread, Ice Man, Dough Belly, Rocky River, Gray Eye, Cock-a-Doodle-Doo, Cool Breeze, Muddy Waters, Pinetop, Jelly Roll, Fats, Leadbelly, Bo Diddley, Cat-Iron, Peg-Leg, Son, Shortstuff, Smoky Babe, Funny Papa, Bukka, Pink, Bull Moose, B.B., T-Bone, Black Ace, Lemon, Washboard, Gatemouth, Cleanhead, Tampa Red, Juke Boy, Shine, Staggerlee, Jim the Devil, Fuck-Up, and Dat Nigger.”
This is a novel about the commemorative act of naming, and about ensuring that we don’t lose sight of the things that lie behind names. Names speak of the history of places — as with Not Doctor Street, given names bespeak a people’s history, of the people who find themselves occupying that place. Nicknames, names retrieved from the Bible, twists on the names of first people (“Singing Bird” is Americanized into “Sing Byrd”), names given by mistake or by chance — these, too, keep alive marginalized identities that are at risk of being flattened or forgotten by the dominant culture. A friend of Macon’s meditates on Malcolm X’s rejection of American surnames, of names once bestowed on slaves by their masters. Naming on your own terms is an act of resistance, and finding yourself linked, by real blood or by folk legend, to a name like Solomon, is, for Macon, a liberating realisation. Names, thinks Macon: “No wonder Pilate put hers in ear. When you know your name, you should hang on to it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you do”. Hang on to it, hang it on you. The Nobel committee wrote that Morrison “gives life to an essential aspect of American reality”. It occurs to me that giving life to — in the profound sense of animating, re-animating, attending to, engaging with — is precisely what this novel is about, in the giving of names.
At the beginning of 2017, this book — about attempting to understand your role in a society and country that doesn’t seem to want you, or is happy to name you ‘Dead’ upon your being born — might matter more than ever. Morrison, around the time of Trump’s inauguration, wrote in the New Yorker:
“The comfort of being ‘naturally better than,’ of not having to struggle or demand civil treatment, is hard to give up. The confidence that you will not be watched in a department store, that you are the preferred customer in high-end restaurants—these social inflections, belonging to whiteness, are greedily relished. So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.”
It is not yet clear what western democracy is going through — an aberration of the arrow of time and progress, a blip on the radar and a bump in the road, or, not to put it too dramatically, the beginning of the end. But it is clear that right-thinking people will need to pay attention to voices like Morrison’s — voices which have been suppressed and banned in universities, ignored by those parts of society that would most benefit from hearing them, and yet which have raised themselves with dignity and clarity to the point of recognition by the greatest prize in literature. In a much-shared article for the New York Times, the forty-fourth president of the United States Barack Obama discussed the books which matter to him most. He is quoted as saying: “‘Song of Solomon’ is a book I think of when I imagine people going through hardship. That it’s not just pain, but there’s joy and glory and mystery”. I cannot hope to add anything more to that sentiment.