There’s a scene early in Don DeLillo’s White Noise in which the novel’s central figure visits a campy tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. “What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he asks of his company. Pleased with his own post-modern musing, he responds to himself: “We can’t answer [this question] because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura.”
This is essentially how I felt approaching Beloved. Every page, each often masterfully crafted metaphor, rang incessantly with the thundering voice of international — and nearly unparalleled — critical acclaim. It’s hard to divorce this looming shadow from your own experience of reading for the first time a novel that so many have lauded as the cornerstone of the American literary landscape. It’s also hard, then, not to feel underwhelmed when that novel doesn’t leap from your insignificant little hands, perform unimaginable acts of acrobatic daring and shoot off through the skylight before exploding into a myriad of brilliant lightworks which illuminate a night sky that had seemed somehow blacker, less relevant to your experience of being a person alive on the planet, before you experienced this staggering masterpiece of American literature.
The blame for this reader’s heightened horizon of expectations certainly can’t be placed on Morrison herself. And, as with any work of fiction, not all of the novel’s critical reception has been glowing. In his particularly icy 1987 review in The New Republic, Stanley Crouch chides the novel for “read[ing] largely like a melodrama lashed to the structural conceits of the mini-series” (41). While I don’t completely share Crouch’s disdain for the novel’s social implications, particularly his contention that Beloved operates as little more than a hollow exercise in “the big-time martyr ratings contest,” (40) I do think he’s right in being troubled by the novel’s often sentimental approach to the psychologically complex condition of its central figures.
I was particularly skeptical of one of the novel’s pivotal concluding scenes, in which Paul D returns to 124 and selflessly attempts to relieve Sethe of the physical burden she has acquired throughout Beloved‘s tumultuous progression. “Me and you,” he explains,” we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” (322). This keeps with the novel’s theme of the perpetual combat between the past’s inconceivable pain and the distant hope of the future, but it can’t help but come across as somewhat contrived to this admittedly cynical 21st Century reader. For me, those lines broke the thread of power accumulating in the novel’s closing chapter and the author’s mediating hand seemed to slap my wrists in an effort to say “This is a fiction which requires your guttural response, and here’s a forced, kind-of-sappy utterance to prove it.”
This isn’t to say that Beloved is a bust — far from it, in fact. I’m aware that any issue I have with the book is magnified by the pre-concieved aura of untouchability which comes with The New York Times Book Review Fiction Survey’s figurative neon banner which hails Beloved as “The Single Best Work of American Fiction Published in the Last 25 Years.” You can’t unread a declaration like that. It’s DeLillo’s unseeable barn. Still, though: there are moments in which the novel dazzles — Morrison’s iron grip on the English language is most certainly one of them — and there are characters here, Stamp Paid and Denver come immediately to mind, who are largely unforgettable and give the novel a much needed variety of experience. While I take issue with some of Morrison’s choices in execution, Beloved undoubtedly provides us with an important perspective by which to consider the psychological inheritance of America’s brutal past.