Jazz is a completely immersive read, but never lets you get comfortable. The focus swings between three main characters, the narrative swings back and forth in time, the location swings between The City and the south, and with each swing your sympathies and feelings change. You don’t get to settle into an opinion of the three main characters. The more you read, the less sure you are. Such is human complexity, which Jazz does perfectly. And the more I try and find the words to say about it and sum it up, the less I feel able to, it all slips away with ‘buts’ and ‘howevers’. So with no straightforward characters, or storyline, or moral, it’s a tricky book to write about.
The three main characters defy easy summary. There’s a middle-aged married couple, Joe and Violet. Joe has an affair with young woman called Dorcas and kills her, and gets away with it. (But he is a sweet and gentle soul, and I grew to love him.) Violet is a hard, angry woman and barges into the funeral of Dorcas with a knife to cut her face. (But she is broken, lonely, barely clinging to reality, and I felt deeply for her.) Conversely Dorcas is the innocent victim, orphaned and needy. (But she lies and plays games and my sympathy for her was conflicted. But she also protects Joe by not naming him as her killer before she dies. But but but.)
OK, let’s try the narrative. But that’s tricky too. The story starts with what would ordinarily be a denouement (is there a name for this?): Violet stumbling into the church, intent on mutilating the girl killed by her husband. So there’s no whodunnit or even whydunnit; the novel traces the threads that culminated in this moment and they go back a long way and down deep, a real and truthful way to tell the story. Yet there is no sense of inevitability to the murder, or to Violet’s actions. Nothing is mechanical or predetermined; the two central characters have agency, and they grow into the freedom that the city offers, shaped but not defined by the past. In the same way, the story bursts out of the novel’s conventional form, and the structure has to accommodate the story – not the other way round. And it’s a perfect form for rootless, complex characters that doesn’t package them into tidy historical case studies, or offer neat causality.
How about the title – that should be easy, surely? No again. Although there is a sense of constant background music in Jazz, the city chapters anyway, it’s not a book ‘about jazz’, (as I had always assumed, I have to admit). It’s a jazz novel, in that the feeling and structure and creative flow are those of jazz. Toni Morrison describes her intent in the foreword. (How often do novelists write a foreword for their books? They always should.) It’s a really interesting read in its own right, if you like knowing how books came about (I do). On jazz as the book’s guiding spirit, she intended to
“… reflect the content and characteristics of its music (romance, freedom of choice, doom, seduction, anger) and the manner of its expression … Primary among these features [of the Jazz Age], however, was invention. Improvisation, originality, change. Rather than be about those characteristics, this novel would seek to become them … I had written novels in which structure was designed to enhance meaning; here the structure would equal meaning. The challenge was to expose and bury the artifice and to take practice beyond the rules. I didn’t want simply a musical background, or decorative references to it. I wanted the work to be a manifestation of the music’s intellect, sensuality, anarchy; its history, its range, and its modernity.”
And it really is.
Finally a quote I really loved:
“Whatever the truth or consequences of individual entanglements and the racial landscape, the music insisted that the past might haunt us but it would not entrap us. It demanded a future – and refused to regard the past as an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself at the crack.”