This month’s bookclub, looking at Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel Jazz, was one of the most animated and animating there’s been. Contributors wondered if their (almost wholly) positive responses were to do with the way the book combined relatively simple diction with relatively complex sentence structures, and shifting narrative perspectives with an over-arching cross-generational plot worthy of a classic nineteenth-century tome. In other words, this felt and sounded very modern (or modernist), but had a firm form. Although we noticed there were few blatant musical set-pieces (and none at the Cotton Club), with no walk-on parts for famous musicians, we also found that music saturated the novel, in terms of people’s obsessions (you’d abandon your baby for the right record!), and their mixed-up identities. African-American cultures’ diversity, and African-American’s inner conflicts, were lived in, or by, music: it poured from and through the city, yet with barely a ‘white’ voice in the book, it fell to ‘black’ figures who despised the way jazz seemed to lead their people astray to condemn it as ‘race music’. Participants wondered if we could syncopate the beginnings and ends of the book’s chapters, as if Morrison had composed a score with counterpoint and harmony. Did the riffs and repetitions in the prose evoke the brooding, communal conventions of great jazz lyrics and melodies? And was such repetition a way to make the past present, showing how we cannot deny our (sometimes horrific) histories, even after being ‘emancipated’ into the modern world? If nothing else, Jazz showed that no act is random, and the roots of behaviour lie deep, sometimes so deep they can be hard to put into words: if characters were unsure of who they were, due to histories of dislocation, family disintegration, self-denial and abuse, the shifting narrative perspectives rendered this as best as could be hoped. Were we on a stoop, listening to stories rushing by, or was this jazz itself, speaking the experiences that made it so vital? This rich account of the lives of ordinary African-Americans wore both its research and its wisdom lightly, but still profoundly.
LitPop is a book club for lovers of books, music and books about music. It meets at 6pm-7pm every third Wednesday of the month at Newcastle City Library and is convened by Rachel Carroll (Teesside University) and Adam Hansen (Northumbria University). Meetings are free to attend, and the library tries to get copies in. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information, or follow us on Twitter @Litpop1.
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