Author(s): Veronique Lesoinne
Source: MELUS. 22.3 (Fall 1997): p151. From Literature Resource Center.
Document Type: Article
Bookmark: Bookmark this Document
Ideally, the [jazz] listener listened intently enough to join the
improviser's trance. That was understood as the listener's job, the
listener's act of creation.
Thismade possible a depth of thought....
The indefinite personality of the narrator in Toni Morrison's novel, Jazz, invokes two of the author's central concerns in the creation of African American literature. On the one hand, through both the indeterminacy and the self-questioning of the narrative I," she compels her readers, whatever their ethnic background, to engage in a thorough self-exploration,or, in her own words, "to examine centers of the self and ... to compare those centers with the `raceless' ones with which we are, all of us, most familiar" (Morrison qtd. in Hulbert 46). On the other hand, the narrating voice's indeterminacy enacts in a most forceful way the novelist's notion of African American modernity. Morrison once "observed ... [that] `a =modernity which overturns pre-wardefinitions ushers in the Jazz Age (an age defined by Afro-American art and culture), and requires new minds of intelligences to define oneself.' Efforts to shape identity became newly =`complex, contradictory, evasive, independent, liquid'" (Hulbert 46). =SPAN class=hitHighlite>Morrison's way of encouraging us on this difficult quest, then, is to invite us to write the novel with her as we arereading it, to (re-)create the novel, and by the same token to (re-)shape ourselves. In that sense, she offers the reader the opportunity to become the protagonist of his/her version of Jazz.
To a large extent, this invitation arises from the spaces that both =he direct reference to jazz music and the slipperiness of the narrator's identity and personality open for the readers. The very title vividlyevokes in our mind the fluid, hybrid musical form which evolved primarily in urban African American communities. This polyrhythmic music is characterized by its extensive use of improvisation and =all-and-response patterns in connection with audience participation. As for Jazz's storyteller, he/she keeps his/her identity veiled in mystery throughout the book, since he/she never names him/herself.In fact, as soon as we touch our copy of the novel and turn the first two =eaves, we find ourselves confronted with the question of the first person narrator's identity. Indeed, the epigraph itself rings out with a self-definition of an unnamed subject:
I am the name of the sound
and the sound of the name.
I am the sign of the letter
and the designation of the division.
The reader's only,tenuous clue is that these four lines come from =he Nag Hammadi, more precisely, from the fundamentally paradoxical, anonymous self-proclamation known as "The Thunder, Perfect Mind." And as our hands =eep turning the pages to the beginning of the story, the narrative voice =oftly calls out to us: "Sth, I know that woman" (1). Such an opening sentence instantaneously establishes the orality andaurality of the novel. =oreover, it activates a sense of immediacy: the narrator is addressing someone who =s looking at the same scene as he/she is, in a tone of gossipy =riendliness between the speaker and the reader who thus turns listener and =yewitness.
As we begin to wonder about the nature of the relationship between =SPAN class=hitHighlite>Jazz's storyteller and the epigraph's "I," we =ote thateven the gender of the narrator is open to discussion. Several reviewers =ave claimed or implied that the narrative voice is that of a woman given the =ossipy quality of the novel. However, this appears to be first a misconception =ue to those critics' forgetting that numerous story-tellers in both the =frican and the African American oral traditions have been male. Furthermore, =hereas Ann...