When the Past is Past

Colleen Lye

Set sometime in the early 1950s, Toni Morrison’s latest work of fiction centers on a 24-year-old black veteran of the Korean War named Frank Money, recently returned from the frontlines and showing signs of psychological disturbance. Home opens with Frank escaping from a Seattle mental hospital and making his way by bus across a still-segregated America back home to Georgia in order to rescue his sister Cee from a racist doctor who is conducting medical experiments on her. Morrison’s tenth novel is best described as spare, consisting of sentences shorter and more readable than we are used to seeing from this author and a plot that resolves itself in a quick 145 pages. The first chapter begins: “They rose up like men. We saw them. Like men they stood.” And the second: “Breathing. How to do it so no one would know he was awake. Fake a deep rhythmic snore, drop the bottom lip.” Simple sentences like these mime the mindset of characters whose viewpoints are limited because they are young, naïve, or mentally ill. Yet the novel also questions whether historical characters ever can be made accessible to contemporary readers. Reviewers disappointed in their expectations of high style may have missed the point. Home is Morrison’s experiment with her previous approach to history.

Whether appreciative of Morrison’s “new, pared-down style” or judging the novel to suffer from a comparative lack of heft and linguistic dazzle, reviewers have generally agreed that Home represents a deliberate shift for Morrison toward a realism of thin description. Michael Miller, writing for The Observer, complains that in the pastoral passages the author “simply rattles off the names of flowers,” while the war sections, even at their most detailed, offer descriptions “hardly evocative of anything.”

What to make of this? Of the novel’s commentators so far, the most insightful has been Cold War Civil Rights author Mary Dudziak, who singled out as the novel’s most interesting feature its deliberate questioning of our ability to know how others think and feel. Morrison’s new interest in the limits of fictional empathy, evidenced in its unusual narrative structure, may also account for the novel’s descriptive withholding. Home occasionally interlaces chapters narrated in the third person, drawing predominantly on Frank’s point of view, with chapters narrated by Frank in the first person. In the latter, Frank talks back to the narrator, sometimes correcting her version of events, at times directly questioning her authority to tell his story. For example, chapter eleven begins:


Korea.

You can’t imagine it because you weren’t there. You can’t describe the bleak landscape because you never saw it.

 

A similar skepticism toward the narrator surfaces when Frank recalls a forced migration from his original childhood home.


You don’t know what heat is until you cross the border from Texas to Louisiana in the summer. You can’t come up with the words to describe it.

Trees give up. Turtles cook in their shells. Describe that if you know how.

 

While in the South it is the heat that evades secondhand description, in Korea it is the “more than freezing” cold clinging to you, “like a kind of glue you can’t peel off.”

Why has Morrison chosen to stage a metafictional dialogue about one of the very fundamental premises of fiction—the narrator’s ability to imagine the lives of others? Beyond appearing to critique fictionalizing in general, Home specifically appears to critique the imaginative or secondhand rendering of traumatic experience. This makes Frank not just a critic of Home’s narrator but of Morrison herself. Weirdly, Morrison’s newest protagonist seems to be quoting the contrarian American literary critic Walter Benn Michaels, whose 1996 article “You Who Never Was There” assailed the contemporary fascination with historical trauma narratives such as Beloved. Morrison taught at Princeton until she retired in 2006, so it is not a stretch to imagine her responding to academic criticism; indeed, as the author of Playing in the Dark, she is herself the author of influential literary criticism. Home may not even be Morrison’s first work to reflect in its literary strategy an awareness of her own cultural and theoretical influence. As scholar Stephen Best has recently noted, Morrison’s 2008 novel A Mercy, set in the New World during a period before slavery coalesced into the racial caste system it later became, suggests an impatience with one of the legacies of Beloved, the equation of race with the eternal specter of slavery.

Set on the cusp of the end of Jim Crow, Home’s choice of historical setting also displaces the centrality of slavery to African American identity. Home responds to Beloved even more overtly by translating the earlier novel’s gothic form into the more rational framework of post-traumatic stress disorder. In case we miss the point that what were ghosts in Beloved are merely psychological figments in Home, there is a didactic narrator to say things like “He’d had lots of sad memories, but no ghosts or nightmares for two days.” Frank’s two best friends, Mike and Stuff, whom he saw killed in action, are the “hovering dead he could no longer hear, talk to, or laugh with.” Yet a purely secular explanation of ghosts is complicated by a mysterious figure in a zoot suit who has been appearing to Frank and whom Cee can also see. The novel takes an uncanny turn when Cee sights the zoot-suited figure just as she and Frank are giving proper burial to a long-dead victim of racial brutality. At this moment, Home seems to return us to the fictional universe of Beloved, where ghosts are real in that they are collective hauntings. But a difference still remains. Whereas Beloved’s ghost could be banished through ritual exorcism but not fundamentally appeased, Home ends with the implication that aggrieved ghosts can be dispersed with finality and given peace, as the result of the psychological catharsis that burial rites provide the living.

In symbolic terms, it is tempting to conclude that where Beloved emphasized the melancholic aftereffects of racial injury, Home proposes the counter-possibility of successfully mourning and moving past it. Inevitably, though, things get more complicated when we try to puzzle out who or what exactly has been mourned. Who is that zoot-suited ghost? He is unlikely to be a representation of the actual man whose skeletal remains Frank and Cee bury, brought to Georgia from Alabama by the owners of a nearby horse-breeding farm, forced to fight his son Jerome to the death for the entertainment of local whites. That man was unlikely to have been a wearer of zoot suits, a style of fashion popular with young Mexican and African Americans in the urban West and North, though it is possible that Jerome later was. The only certain connection between the zoot suit and the dead man is that they both signify a pre–World War II racial order: one character reckons that the chilling practice of “men-treated-like-dog fights” went on until Pearl Harbor; zoot suits figured in a series of race riots in 1943, when military personnel on shore leave attacked Mexican and African American youth wearing this clothing.

A central premise of Morrison’s new novel is the disjuncture between the experience of an institutionally desegregated military and a still socially segregated home front.

In burying this unnamed man, Frank and Cee might best be understood as putting to rest not the tormented ghost of any concrete character but the very drive to represent the racial past through allegorical abstractions. In the process, they are also letting go of Morrison’s past means of representing the persistence of the past. (To conclude thus is admittedly to trigger the question of whether the novel is refusing allegorical reading through allegorical means.) In turning away from the modernist melancholy associated with Beloved, Morrison is not offering in its stead a protest novel of political awakening. Frank’s only dim awareness of the political valence of the zoot suit is matched by his lack of critical consciousness of the war that victimizes him. The Korean War was the first US war fought under military desegregation, as directed by executive order in 1948 partly under the pressure of the Committee against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training (formed by A. Philip Randolph and Grant Reynolds), which had threatened draft resistance. The military commitment to desegregation was uneven and slow to be implemented. In 1951, then–NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall was dispatched to Seoul to investigate the questionable court martial of 39 soldiers from the 24th “Buffalo Soldier” Infantry Regiment who had been convicted of insubordination. In the first years of the war, military officials restricted the ranks of the officer corps and sought to limit blacks to 10% of the enlisted. Poor performance of the 24th was used to justify continued segregation. However, as the war dragged on and it became increasingly urgent to find combat replacements, black enlistment rose to the point where, by the end of 1953, 90% of African Americans were serving in integrated units and the armed forces were now overall more mixed than any civil institution not counting prisons.

A central premise of Home’s story of the returning black Korean War veteran is precisely the disjuncture between the experience of an institutionally desegregated military and a still socially segregated home front—even, as Frank discovers, in places like Seattle and Chicago. This disjuncture made the military a leading site of debates about racial integration and the Korean War a radicalizing experience for those black soldiers who perceived a connection between the fight for racial equality at home and national self-determination in Asia. Many individuals who became influential in the civil rights and Black Power movements of the ’60s served in Korea, such as Robert F. Williams, Bobby Seale, James Forman, and Amiri Baraka.

Frank Money, however, is no activist in the making. When he hears someone criticize the treatment of black veterans, his conscious reaction is that “the army hadn’t treated him so bad,” and “as a matter of fact the discharge doctors were thoughtful and kind.” Home is precisely not a novel of Afro-Asian solidarity. The story does contain hints of amicable black-Asian encounters; for example, Frank’s African-American girlfriend Lily receives a raise from her employer at Wang’s Heavenly Palace dry cleaners, but even this only underscores the structural divergence between black wage-workers and Asian American middleman minorities.

The war’s effect is to transform Frank into a racial killer, rather than into a radicalized person of color.

Morrison’s novel is about a black man so scarred by the violence he’d committed in Korea that long after, at a church convention, he bolts at the sight of a “little girl with slanty eyes.” After witnessing the gory death of his buddies, there had not been “enough dead gooks or Chinks in the world to satisfy him.” The war’s effect is to transform him into a racial killer, rather than into a radicalized person of color. Any interracial fellowship he does feel is with whites such as the soldier whom Frank and his friends called “Red,” short for “redneck”—a Southerner who preferred to associate with the black Georgians in his troop rather than with Northern whites. Nor does the war appear to introduce Frank to leftist thinking, despite the novel’s frequent references to the proximity of another kind of “Red” presence.

Home focuses on the isolating and disorienting effect of war on its participants, despite the military’s cosmopolitan promise of “something else, something beyond and unlike Georgia.” At the same time, the novel does not seem satisfied to leave Frank suspended in the timeless space of trauma. It is interested in the resumption of developmental possibility in ways that at first seem trite and simplistically redemptive, but that are also, in the context of Morrison’s oeuvre, perverse and bold.

Frank’s route to psychological recovery from Korea goes through Georgia, where in learning of the permanent consequences of the medical experimentation upon his sister he gives in to grief in a way that he hadn’t been able to even for Mike and Stuff. Cee’s own journey from a lifelong habit of dependence on others to a new freedom of self-regard models for Frank the necessity of confronting painful truths. There is a patness to the links the narrative makes between Cee’s and Frank’s trajectories of healing, and it is finally not its use of a therapeutic idiom as such that makes Home original.

It is as a historical novel of the Korean War that Home breaks new ground. Both Cee and Frank are haunted by images of a creepy, smiling girl child who morphs from Cee’s never-to-be-born baby to the repressed secret of Frank’s war crime. Elsewhere, as if to reinforce this inkling of possible Afro-Asian identification, the novel associates Frank’s lack of physical self-control with the manic rhythms of post-Hiroshima scat and bebop. Though the narrative’s content is about African American participation in the US killing of Asians, its figural language creates a resonance between the genocidal fates of black and Asian populations.

The novel’s figural Afro-Asian connections go beyond loose parallels and point toward the historicity of different racisms, which is the novel’s most ambitious accomplishment, and returns us to its realism of thin description. The quandary of authentically representing traumatic experience is that trauma blunts the senses—which may explain why Frank’s first-person narration does not provide a much richer description of his experience than does the third-person narrator. In the early days of Frank’s Korea posting, his eyes and ears are trained to be extra alert to the slightest movement in a bleak landscape. But after he has been turned into a killing machine, he becomes deaf to any begging or howling for help from the enemy wounded. Back in America, his cross-country bus journey takes him through a wintry landscape similarly bleak, while intermittent psychotic breaks translate into his literally losing color vision. Flatness is associated with an enemy landscape that is racialized as Asiatic, where there is “nothing to see but a quiet village far below,” such that one must look very hard for “any sign of sloe eyes or padded hats.” Flatness is also the sign of the person who has been traumatized, as in the case of Cee, whose eyes are “flat, waiting, always waiting.”

The quandary of authentically representing traumatic experience is that trauma blunts the senses.

Might the transferability of flatness between racial form and psychological condition, between traumatic cause and traumatic symptoms, be a way for Morrison to establish not just parallels between African Americans and Asian Americans but also a dynamic relation between them? The few reviewers who have not faulted Home for its flatness have salvaged it by speculating that Morrison was aiming to write a fairytale or fable. Certainly there is a narrowness and predictability to all the secondary characters and even to Cee and Frank themselves. Yet so insistent is the novel upon the characters’ limitations, particularly when it comes to their sociopolitical awareness, that we must conclude that their limited perspective is a device for contrasting experience and knowledge. Whereas the characters are woefully unaware of the significance of eugenics literature, the meaning of the term “fellow traveler,” the identity of Albert Maltz, and the use of racial covenants in real estate, the novel counts on its readers to understand these references. Home’s narrative suspense is driven by the gap between the naiveté of those who were there and the knowledge of those who weren’t, as well as between what those who were there know and what we in the present can’t know. It is by means of readers’ experience of this gap that the novel communicates the historical difference between now and then—and also a sense of the uneven transitionality of the period being portrayed.

What this sense of transitionality includes is the historicity of different kinds of racial atrocity. Some traumatic events are put to rest and given meaning, but not others. While Frank and Cee manage to retroactively contextualize the corpse that frightened them as children, the death of Frank’s buddies remains meaningless and the war’s purpose obscure to all the characters. Similarly, by the time the novel ends we are confident that the zoot-suited ghost has made his final appearance, but with the undead girl child we suspect this will take more time. Through these differences the novel seems to be saying that by the early 1950s the era of neo-slave plantations is over but not a racial order based on scientific racism and imperial citizenship. Reference to the “men-treated-like-dog fights” at the horse breeding farm suggests not only the animal treatment of blacks but also the unnatural intraspecies brutality forced upon blacks required to kill Asians in order to become white, or, if not white, then supposedly more free. In alluding to the way conscription into the US’s twentieth-century wars in Asia served a contradictory means for blacks to advance claims to full citizenship, the novel can be said to capture the emergent significance of the “forgotten war” that was not yet Vietnam and not yet the time of Black Power.