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Nothing to do with romance

Love, A Novel; Toni Morrison; Alfred A. Knopf: 208 pp., $23.95

October 26, 2003|James Marcus | James Marcus is a critic, journalist and translator, and the author of the forthcoming "Amazonia: A Memoir of the Internet Boom and Bust."

Never judge a book by its title -- at least not if the author happens to be Toni Morrison. The Nobel laureate's previous novel, "Paradise," described the violent meltdown of a bootstrapping African American community in rural Oklahoma. Her original title, "War," would have been more accurate. But Morrison's publisher lobbied for something less negative, and the author reluctantly complied.

Now comes a new novel, "Love," which features a notable shortage of the many-splendored thing. Indeed, most of the characters despise each other with such gusto that Morrison might just have easily called the whole production "Hatred." Are we dealing with a casual misnomer? Another veto from the marketing department? Neither, would be my guess: Morrison means to explore the porous boundary, the notoriously thin line, between the two emotions. Her interest lies in the sparks thrown off by this most intense of human polarities, which gives her slender novel its considerable, coruscating power.

And who is the object of these affections? Much of the love, anyway, is directed at Bill Cosey, the deceased proprietor of a black Xanadu on the Eastern seaboard. At its zenith, during the 1930s and '40s, the Cosey Hotel and Resort was the watering hole of choice for America's black elite. There you found Fats Waller, Jimmie Lunceford, T-Bone Walker, Earl Hines and any number of well-heeled, well-fed guests. Nobody could resist the place during its mythological heyday, "when the lamps ringing the dance floor were rocking in ocean air; when the band warmed up and the women appeared, dressed in moire and chiffon and trailing jasmine scent in their wake; when the men with beautiful shoes and perfect creases in their linen trousers held chairs for the women so they could sit knee to knee at the little tables.... Later in the evening -- when those who were not playing whist were telling big lies in the bar; when couples were sneaking off in the dark -- the remaining dancers would do steps with outrageous names, names musicians made up to control, confuse and excite their audiences all at the same time."

By the 1960s, however, this golden age had long since ended. The resort fell into an irreversible decline, besieged on one side by black nationalist furies and on the other by "Hyatts, Hiltons, cruises to the Bahamas and Ocho Rios." The final blow came in 1971, when the 81-year-old proprietor died. Cosey's hotel was promptly shuttered and abandoned, even as Hurricane Agnes submerged most of the surrounding beaches. Here, you imagine, is a character whose name was truly writ on water.

Thirty years later, however, his memory persists. "Love," in fact, is a kind of narrative relay, in which one woman after another ponders the departed Cosey and the wreckage left in his wake. There's Heed, his second wife, whom the cradle-robbing hotelier married when she was 11. There's May, his daughter-in-law and second in command, displaced in the professional pecking order by this child bride. There's May's daughter Christine, who was best friends with Heed before the wedding. Nor should we overlook two former employees, L and Vida. Even Junior Viviane, a calculating sexpot born nearly a decade after Cosey's death, develops a fixation on the man, whose ghost seems to be lingering in his old haunts. Each story refracts the previous one and is refracted by what comes next.

This may sound impossibly complicated. It is. Morrison has shredded the chronology with a kind of Faulknerian relish, crosscutting between voices, incidents and eras. Perhaps there's an authorial will to power at work: She too wants to control, confuse and excite her audience all at the same time. Yet the floundering reader will recognize some of the genuine flux of life here, which is more hospitable to confusion than to clarity.

Meanwhile, even an ensemble piece like "Love" has its star players: Heed and Christine. These aged antagonists now share the Cosey mansion on Monarch Street. During the early years of their cohabitation, which began in 1975, they regularly traded blows, slaps, punches. By now, however, "their grievances were too serious for that. Like friendship, hatred needed more than physical intimacy; it wanted creativity and hard work to sustain itself." And sustain it they do, even as they struggle to cheat each other out of the family inheritance. In this clash, Heed, the widow, would seem to have the upper hand. Yet Christine has the underdog's endless supply of rage, stoked by her role as quasi-domestic servant. "If this wasn't hell," she reflects at one point, "it was the lobby."

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